Google Asks US Government Permission to Publish More National Security Request Data

By Peter Bernstein June 11, 2013

For those of you following my take on the firestorm of events set off by whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA’s data mining activities in the Guardian, you may recall my thought that a little bit of sunshine might go a long way to quell public suspicions about the collection of personal information. While the debate over finding an appropriate balance between security in a very dangerous world versus personal privacy rights in an open society is now fully engaged, you might be surprised as to who has asked the feds to open the kimono a bit to let the sun shine in. It is none other than Google.

You read the last line correctly. Google, no stranger to mining data and then monetizing it, does not want to painted as a villain in this passion play. They have sent a rather pointed letter on the subject to U.S. Attorney General Erick Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to that effect, and posted it on the Google official corporate blog. It is worth a read.

Is what Google wants what Google gets?

This is one of those instances where paraphrasing would be inappropriate. Below is the posting in its entirety.

Dear Attorney General Holder and Director Mueller

Google has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users’ trust. For example, we offer encryption across our services; we have hired some of the best security engineers in the world; and we have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data. We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests. Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide. Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters. There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative. Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security.We will be making this letter public and await your response. David Drummond Chief Legal Officer

The word to circle in the above is “trust.”

As Google points out, and has been echoed by all of the companies listed as part of the now infamous PRISM dragnet (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple) have commented in some manner, while they have complied with FISA requests they do not wish to be viewed by the public as tools for what has been described as the government’s “vacuum cleaner.” They all understand that their very vitality rests trust. We may all question the degree to which each of those companies has lived up to their end of the bargain we strike with them by giving them permission to gather, analyze and sell our information in exchange for our use of their services, but at least we explicitly know that is part of the deal.  

In short, commercial entities to say the least have vested interest in demonstrating that they can be trusted based on their contracts with us. 

There is an old saying that, “It is what you don’t know that can kill you.” Google is not asking the government to stop what the intelligence community feels are reasonable efforts to proactively defend the national interest through the FISA process. Indeed, the rules and oversight of that process is a policy matter beyond that needs to be examined and fine-tuned if that is what is deemed the best path forward. What it is saying is that it believes based on a little prior experience with partial disclosure, letting the public know on aggregate that the bad guys are active and somebody is keeping an eye on them is actually a good thing.

On its face the Google request seems reasonable as a good and immediate first step to restore some modicum of trust for all concerned at this critical moment in time. 

Whether you think Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero for his decision to reveal the NSA’s activities should not color your opinion as to considering sensible steps to insure the default feeling we have about any and all of our online interactions not be distrust. 

The fact is that our “E”conomy cannot function without trust. Google is rightly concerned about all of the current speculation about its level of possible complicity with seemingly unfettered data mining of all of our personal information. The environment right now as to who to believe about what is confusing to say the least. In fact, company denials of their knowledge of PRISM may be part of legal obligations under the law to not disclose activities deemed in the national interest. This makes for an interesting case of “Catch Twenty-Two”—which for those who did not read the classic book roughly translated is, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t!”      

As the cyber world turns it will be fascinating to see if what Google wants Google gets. In my opinion they deserve to be commended and supported on their request. This seems like a modest proposal that will not compromise security efforts, yet will let us know about the degree of vigilance that is underway. I can only trust.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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