NSA to release spying statistics

The Obama administration plans to release statistics that could shed light on the scope of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.

In a blog post late Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he would soon release data on the total number of secret court orders to communications providers and the number of people targeted in those orders.

The government plans to continue releasing the statistics in annual reports, Clapper said.

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He explained that he decided to release the reports to comply with President Obama's directive to declassify as much information as possible about the surveillance programs while protecting national security.

The data will include totals for national security letters and orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. 

Although the reports will include the total number of people "targeted" by the surveillance, the NSA could still be collecting information on a far greater number. Intelligence officials have acknowledged to Congress that they read and store information on people as many as "three hops" away from a target. So when the NSA identifies a target, it can also comb through the records of everyone he contacted, everyone who contacted those people and everyone who contacted those people.

A number of technology companies already release regular reports on how often they turn over their users' information to police and other government officials. But the United States has strictly limited the companies' ability to reveal aggregated statistics on the number of people affected by national security surveillance.

Google and Microsoft have sued for the right to publish more detailed data about how the NSA is spying on their users.

In a statement, Google said Clapper's decision to publish the annual reports is a "step in the direction" but that "there is still too much secrecy around these requests and that more openness is needed."

Microsoft said it welcomes the government's efforts for greater transparency but that it still must be able to exercise its free speech rights.

"Until the government releases the data, we can't determine how satisfying this would be for Microsoft or its customers," the company said.

—Updated at 10:20 a.m.