Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook are pushing back against the US government’s mandates that certain surveillance requests not be spoken about or admitted to publicly.
According to The Washington Post, unsealed court documents have revealed the extent to which these firms are fighting the so-called “national security letters” that demand their silence on data collection. Each of these companies, along with countless others, are taking measures to protect their users’ privacy in wake of increased public awareness of government surveillance programs.
One of the first publicized measures many companies took were “transparency reports,” detailing how many times they had to turn data over to law enforcement. When the user data is taken via a national security letter, however, the gag order requires that they are not mentioned in these transparency reports.
While US business has not been severely harmed for these companies by the surveillance revelations, trust in American companies abroad has waned significantly. This is likely a backfire effect from government assurances that the real targets are only foreign nationals.
The aforementioned four companies jointly filed a suit with a federal court, arguing that their first amendment rights to speech are infringed by these gag reports. Law enforcement claims there are no rights to free speech when cooperating with secret federal investigations, which is probably true. While the companies say they have no intention to share the targets or other identifying details about these investigations, they do want to offer more detailed information about the amount and type of data being shared.
This report comes not long after the founder of privacy-oriented email service Lavabit shared his experience of being under a gag order as the US government demanded he turn over user email information. He gained little sympathy from the courts as he eventually shut down the service to avoid turning over compromising information, a measure which could still land him in jail.
It’s unclear how compelling the case of the tech giants will be in court. There is little argument about whether secret investigations ought to remain secret. Rather, the real debates are about the amount of and justification for these investigations. In all likelihood, this resistance from tech companies would not exist if surveillance was better targeted, less numerous, and public confidence in their justification was higher.
Featured image by Jonathan McIntosh (Flickr).