Civil liberties groups back tech giants' requests to publish surveillance data

A coalition of civil liberties groups has filed a brief in support of Google and Microsoft's requests to publish aggregate figures on the number of national security requests they receive for user data.

In an amicus brief filed late Monday with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the coalition voiced support for the tech giants' argument that publishing those figures falls within their First Amendment rights.

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The coalition also contends that publishing those figures would not jeopardize the country's national security, but would serve to better inform the public about the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs. 

"Here, in seeking to provide the public with information about the number of government requests received and the number of affected subscriber accounts, Google and Microsoft each seeks to engage in speech that addresses governmental affairs in the most profound way that any citizen can: by describing their own interaction with the government process that is the subject of the national debate," the brief reads. 

The First Amendment Coalition organized the filing of the brief, which was authored by well-known First Amendment lawyers Floyd Abrams and Dean Ringel. The Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union, TechFreedom and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also signed the brief.

Former government contractor Edward Snowden has claimed that top tech companies, including Google and Microsoft, had participated in a surveillance program run by the NSA that monitored Internet communications. Snowden alleged the companies gave the spy agency "direct access" to their servers, which store user data.

The tech companies that were linked to the NSA program vehemently denied the allegations and said they first heard about them through media reports. Since the revelations surfaced, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other major tech companies have pushed back against Snowden's claims and tried to restore users' trust in how they handle personal data.

Last month, Google and Microsoft filed petitions with the secret court to ask for permission to publish the aggregate figures on the number of national security requests they receive for user information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), citing their First Amendment rights.

Companies are barred from even acknowledging that they’ve received a FISA court request under current law, as well as whether they’ve complied with them.

Google already breaks down figures on the types of criminal requests it receives for user data, including subpoenas and search warrants, but wants to publish the number of FISA requests it receives separately. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company argues that sandwiching the number of FISA requests in with other types of government requests for user information is "a backward step" for its consumers.

In the brief, the civil liberties groups argue that Google and Microsoft are simply trying to provide more information to the public amid confusion about the NSA surveillance programs.

“Microsoft and Google are simply seeking permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security surveillance authorities," said Kevin Bankston, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement.

"Publishing basic numerical data about criminal law enforcement surveillance never tipped off Tony Soprano, and publishing similar data about national security surveillance won’t make the American people less secure — but it will make us more informed.”