Verizon to reveal subpoenas, court orders in transparency reports

Verizon announced Thursday that it will begin publishing a semi-annual transparency report, including the number of government requests for user data it receives.

The company, which will be the first major telecom company to release such a report, said it plans to publish its first report “in early 2014” and will update it semi-annually.

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Verizon and AT&T have faced pressure to publish information about government requests for user data from privacy advocates — and more recently, shareholders — after this year’s revelations about U.S. surveillance.

Specifically, Verizon and AT&T came into the spotlight after leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicated that the U.S. government is collecting information about all American phone calls with the companies’ cooperation.

Verizon said the report will provide data about subpoenas, court orders and warrants, and the company is “working with the U.S. government regarding detail the company can report on the number of National Security Letters it received last year.”

“Although we have a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in response to lawful demands, we take seriously our duty to provide such information only when authorized by law,” Verizon Executive Vice President for Public Policy Randal Milch said in a statement.

Milch said the transparency report is intended to “to keep our customers informed about government requests for their data and how we respond to those requests.” 

“Verizon calls on governments around the world to provide more information on the types and amounts of data they collect and the legal processes that apply when they do so,” he said.

Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project of Freedom, Security and Technology, highlighted the novelty of Verizon’s promised reports.

“Verizon is the first U.S. telecom to make this commitment,” he said in a statement, calling the company’s announcement “a very welcome development.”

The report “will contribute to their customers' understanding about the privacy of their communications and to the public understanding of the scope of law enforcement demands,” he said.

Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, applauded Verizon for “following the example of the Internet industry and taking a leadership position amongst the telephone companies on the issue of transparency reporting on law enforcement requests.”

In recent years, Internet companies like Google have published transparency reports, discussing government requests for user data in as much detail as legally possible. 

Google, Facebook and other tech companies have been suing the federal government for the ability to publish more information about the government requests they receive. NSA reform bills currently in front of Congress would allow companies to publish more specific information about the scope of requests they receive.

“I hope that Verizon will join with the broad coalition of Internet companies and advocacy groups that has banded together to press for legislation to allow communications providers to publish basic data about the national security requests they receive,” Bankston said in a statement.

“As the NSA review group just reiterated yesterday, transparency reporting by companies is a critical check on how the government uses its surveillance authorities, and we hope Verizon will be a part of the growing consensus on this issue."