Microsoft urges Holder to let tech giants share national security requests

Microsoft's top lawyer on Tuesday urged Attorney General Eric Holder to personally intervene and allow the tech giant to share information about its handling of national security requests for user data.

In a scathing letter sent to Holder, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said there is no longer a government need to keep the information private since the release of a number of classified documents in recent months detailing the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone and Internet data.

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"It's time to face some obvious facts. Numerous documents are now in the public domain," Smith wrote "As a result, there is no longer a compelling government interest in stopping those of us with knowledge from sharing more information, especially when this information is likely to help allay public concerns."

Smith charged that the Justice Department and others are dragging their feet when responding to Microsoft and other tech companies' requests to publish information about how they handle demands for user data. 

He said the situation now called for “the personal involvement” of Holder and possibly even President Obama.

Major tech companies have called on the government to let them publish figures that show how infrequently they hand over user data to the intelligence community, amid fears that NSA spying could scare away consumers.

Microsoft and other tech companies have come under scrutiny after former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents about a National Security Agency surveillance program that allegedly worked with the tech industry to monitor Internet traffic. 

In the letter to Holder, Smith referred to a report published in the English newspaper The Guardian last week that claimed Microsoft helped U.S. intelligence officials gain easier access to their users' electronic communications. 

Smith said the government rejected Microsoft's request to "publicly explain practices" that were described in the Guardian story and other media reports, which came from documents leaked by Snowden. 

The practices referred to in the leaked documents "have now been misinterpreted in news stories around the world," wrote Smith. 

"In the meantime, the practical result of this indecision is continued refusals to allow us to share more information with the public," he said. "This opposition and these delays are serving poorly the public, the government itself, and most importantly, the constitutional principles that we all put first and foremost."

Smith said Microsoft's petition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, asking for permission to publish figures on the national security requests it receives, has remained unanswered a month after it was filed. 

Google had initially filed a similar request with the secret court. 

"Put simply, we need you to step in to ensure that common sense and our constitutional safeguards prevail," Smith said. 

Separately, Microsoft also published a blog post authored by Smith that is intended to tackle "significant inaccuracies" in the media reports last week about its alleged collaboration with the NSA. 

Counter to the media reports, the company argued that it does not "provide any government with the ability to break the encryption, nor do we provide the government with the encryption keys” to access user data. 

When it must comply with a government order, Microsoft said it pulls the specific content from its servers and provides the data in an unencrypted format to the government. 

Smith also denied reports that Microsoft gave the government direct access to its cloud service SkyDrive.

In the blog post, Smith said Microsoft will only give the government specific user data if it follows "applicable legal process," and that the company does not provide sweeping access to its servers. He stressed that Microsoft only responds to "requests for specific accounts and identifiers" and does not grant blanket access to user data.  

The top Microsoft attorney said there needs to be "a more open and public discussion" about government requests for user information at a time when more tech companies are relying on big data. 

"The United States has been a role model by guaranteeing a constitutional right to free speech. We want to exercise that right," Smith writes in the blog post. "With U.S. government lawyers stopping us from sharing more information with the public, we need the attorney general to uphold the constitution."