Thanks to XKeyscore and PRISM, Big Brother Has Nothing On the U.S. Government

It’s been a disquieting summer for internet freedom. Edward Snowden sparked a furor over online surveillance in early June with his exposure of the Verizon wiretapping orders and 1984-esque PRISM program run by the NSA. More disturbing news quickly followed from other corners of the globe, with reports that the UK may be intercepting all internet traffic flowing across the Atlantic and that the Dutch and French governments are likely conducting similar programs. And today’s report on the XKeyscore program underscores the reality that there is little online data that escapes government scrutiny.

The latest revelation about online surveillance, released in Twitter’s bi-annual transparency report, is similarly troubling. According to the report, in the first six months of this year, the federal government made 902 requests for user data that targeted 1,319 unique user accounts. This marks a dramatic increase over the last year — requests from the same period in 2012 targeted 815 users, a 61% increase. Overall, an overwhelming majority (78%) of all requests for user information came from the American federal government – ten times the number coming from any other country. 

Alarming as these numbers are, they may represent only a small number of the actual requests that the federal government makes. Long-standing gag orders prevent Twitter and other tech giants from releasing information about data requests authorized by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in the name of national security. This means that Twitter’s transparency report can only include information about government requests for non-security issues such as criminal investigations.

Fortunately, tech giants have not taken these requests lying down. Twitter has been particularly outspoken about the need for transparency about government requests for data. “An important conversation has begun about the extent to which companies should be allowed to publish information regarding national security requests,” Twitter’s manager of legal policy wrote in the introduction to the transparency report. “We have joined forces with industry peers and civil liberty groups to insist that the United States government allow for increased transparency into these secret orders.”

Indeed, this coalition may be leading the way to Internet freedom. In June, Google filed a legal petition arguing that it has the First Amendment right to speak candidly about information it is required to give the government. In recent days, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo have been granted permission to include some data about FISA requests in their transparency reports, although because that information is aggregated with non-security requests, users are unable to discover much about the scope of government surveillance within the companies.

Government requests for user data may be legal and justified in the name of national security. But the federal government’s insistence upon opacity creates a false choice between national security and civil liberties. Simple changes — such as a legal victory for Google — would allow American citizens to know the extent to which their online activity is watched without damaging the country’s fight to protect national security.