Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Google Breaks Silence about FBI Requests for Information

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For the first time, Google has confirmed that each year it receives a number of FBI “national security letters,” which request that it turn over user account information to the agency. The warrant-less requests are shrouded in secrecy, so the company was able to divulge only a range of the number of times it receives and complies with such letters.

Andy Greenberg with Forbes reported, “National security letters are the Fight Club of government data surveillance. Thanks to the gag orders that accompany those FBI requests for users’ private information, the first rule for any company that receives an NSL is that it doesn’t talk about receiving an NSL. Now Google is doing its best to blur–if not quite break–that rule. In a new section of its bi-annual Transparency Report on government censorship and surveillance of its data, Google on Tuesday issued its first ever accounting of how many NSLs it has received for the last four years along with how many users were affected, albeit in extremely broad terms.”

According to The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, “Google said it received between zero and 999 NSLs in 2012 and that the letters sought information on a total of 1,000 to 1,999 users or accounts. (The number of users suggests Google got at least one NSL last year, not zero, but the company wouldn’t comment beyond its report.) The company also gave similar numbers back to 2009, saying it received between zero and 999 letters each year. In 2010, the letters sought information on more users – between 2,000 and 2,999 that year, Google said.”

Wired’s David Kravets commented, “The terrorists apparently would win if Google told you the exact number of times the Federal Bureau of Investigation invoked a secret process to extract data about the media giant’s customers. That’s why it is unlawful for any record-keeper to disclose it has received a so-called National Security Letter. But under a deal brokered with the President Barack Obama administration, Google on Tuesday published a ‘range’ of times it received National Security Letters demanding it divulge account information to the authorities without warrants. It was the first time a company has ever released data chronicling the volume of National Security Letter requests.”

Leslie Meredith with NBCNews noted, “The official requests are used by the FBI only in cases involving international terrorism or foreign intelligence/counterintelligence, are approved only by a senior FBI official (no court approval is necessary) and may require absolute secrecy on the part of Google or any other Internet company if the FBI determines that disclosure would endanger national security. However, the information that can be requested through an NSL is pretty limited. Under law, the FBI can seek ‘the name, address, length of service, and local and long distance toll billing records.’ An NSL cannot be used to ask for IP addresses, search history, YouTube videos watched or the content of Gmail messages, Google said on its transparency report site.”

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