Feds Offer Tech Companies Possibility of a Little More Surveillance Transparency

Here, have some delicious crumbs


You're not just a number to us. You're a range of numbers.
Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / Foter.com / CC BY

Rejoice! Your federal government overlords are kindly permitting tech companies to provide you a little bit more transparency about their requests for user data. It's not a whole lot more information, but it's something.

The Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out a joint statement that will cause your brain to supply the sound of a Peanuts teacher while you're trying to read it (or maybe that's just me). One relevant paragraph:

This action was directed by the President earlier this month in his speech on intelligence reforms. While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.

Translation: "What we're doing is extremely legal and for national security, but if it will make you paranoid jerks happy, we will put everybody's lives at risk of terrorism to give you a little bit more information. And no, Edward Snowden still isn't a whistleblower."

Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote the letter (pdf) explaining the proposed changes in how tech companies will be permitted to reveal federal requests for user data. The restrictions on detailing National Security Letters will not change, alas. They will still have to be counted in vague factors of 1,000. But tech companies will also be able to reveal numbers of FISA court-approved orders  for content or "non-content" (metadata) and the number of customers targeted for gathering of content and for "non-content" (metadata), again all rounded to the thousands.

In addition, there will be a six-month delay for publishing the information, and, more importantly, a two-year delay in allowing any transparency when the feds start ordering companies to provide data from new platforms, products and services they hadn't been snooping before. So users who jump ship to new social media or communication systems online may not know for a while whether the feds are getting info from or about them.

The feds are also offering a transparency alternative that allows tech companies to provide more accurate numbers in exchange for being less transparent about what the requests were for. So a tech company could instead detail how many customers and how many orders they've gotten in bands of 250, rather than 1,000, but they would not be able to separate out the super-secret National Security Letters from requests for metadata.

No, there's nothing in the letter that suggests any sort of scaling back of mass data collection.