Web companies give first look at secret US government data requests

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microsoftFacebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google on Monday began publishing details about the number of secret government requests for data they receive, hoping to show limited involvement in controversial U.S. surveillance efforts.

The tech industry has pushed for greater transparency on government data requests, seeking to shake off concerns about their involvement in vast, surreptitious surveillance programs revealed last summer by former spy contractor Edward Snowden.

The government said last month it would relax rules restricting what details companies can disclose about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders they receive for user information. Several companies, including Google and Microsoft, sued the government last year, seeking the ability to disclose more of that data.

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said on Monday the latest data showed that the info the government has asked online companies to turn over has not been as vast as some feared.

“We have not received the type of bulk data requests that are commonly discussed publicly regarding telephone records,” Smith said. “This is a point we’ve publicly been making in a generalized way since last summer, and it’s good finally to have the ability to share concrete data.”

Between 15,000 to 15,999 Microsoft-user accounts were the subject of FISA court orders requesting content during the first six months of 2013, the company said.

Still, Smith cited media reports – based on Snowden’s leaked documents – that the government may have intercepted user information without tech companies’ knowledge or cooperation, by tapping into communications cables that link Google and Yahoo datacenters.

“Despite the President’s reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies,” he said on Microsoft’s blog. “We believe the Constitution requires that our government seek information from American companies within the rule of law.”