Google asked the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Tuesday to ease long-standing gag orders over data requests it makes, arguing that the company has a constitutional right to speak about information it’s forced to give the government.
The legal filing, which cites the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, is the latest move by the California-based tech giant to protect its reputation in the aftermath of news reports about sweeping National Security Agency surveillance of Internet traffic.
Google, one of nine companies named in NSA documents as providing information to the top-secret PRISM program, has demanded that U.S. officials give it more leeway to describe the company’s relationship with the government. Google and the other companies involved have sought to reassure users that their privacy is being protected from unwarranted intrusions.
In the petition, Google is seeking permission to publish the total numbers of requests the court makes of the company and the numbers of user accounts they affect. The company long has made regular reports with regard to other data demands from the U.S. government and from other governments worldwide.
“Greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately,” the company said in a statement.
That information would not necessarily shed much light on PRISM, whose existence was first reported by The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. But initiating a high-profile legal showdown may help Google’s efforts to portray itself as aggressively resisting government surveillance.
All of the technology companies involved in PRISM, including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, have struggled to respond to the revelations about NSA surveillance. Most have issued carefully word denials, saying that they do not permit wholesale data collection while acknowledging that they comply with legal government information requests.
FISA court data requests typically are known only to small numbers of a company’s employees. Discussing the requests openly, either within or beyond the walls of an involved company, can violate federal law.
The technology companies linked to PRISM publicly urged U.S. officials last week to ease official secrecy about information requests. Facebook on Friday night issued its first-ever account of how many data requests the company gets from government entities — state, local and federal — in the United States. That number included FISA requests but the information was categorized too broadly to offer a precise view of these especially secretive data transfers.
The FISA court, composed of 11 federal judges appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., rarely rejects government requests for information and rarely make its opinions public. The court approved each of the 1,789 government requests it received in 2012, except for one that was withdrawn.
In 2008, the court rejected a challenge from a technology company that argued that a government request for information on foreign users was too broad to be constitutional. The court redacted the name of the company and other details when it published the ruling.
Revelations this month about PRISM have sparked fierce debate about the appropriate balance between national security with privacy rights, with U.S. officials in recent days mounting vigorous defense of data collection efforts.
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that more than 50 attacks – including one potentially targeting the New York Stock Exchange – had been thwarted with the help of the agency’s surveillance programs. President Barack Obama said on a PBS interview aired Monday night that the government was “making the right trade-offs” in allowing the programs.