If 'Just Metadata' Isn't An Issue, Why Can't Tech Companies Reveal 'Just Metadata' About NSA Surveillance?

from the simple-questions dept

You may have heard the news today that a bunch of big tech companies -- including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, Mozilla, Reddit, Tumblr and others -- have sent a strong letter to a variety of government officials, both in the administration and Congress, demanding greater transparency, and the ability to reveal more information about the government's various surveillance programs that compel the tech companies to participate:
We the undersigned are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the US government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers.

First, the US government should ensure that those companies who are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users’ data are allowed to regularly report statistics reflecting:
  • The number of government requests for information about their users made under specific legal authorities such as Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the various National Security Letter (NSL) statutes, and others;
  • The number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested under each authority; and
  • The number of requests under each authority that sought communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.
Second, the government should also augment the annual reporting that is already required by statute by issuing its own regular “transparency report” providing the same information: the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each.

As an initial step, we request that the Department of Justice, on behalf of the relevant executive branch agencies, agree that Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers may publish specific numbers regarding government requests authorized under specific national security authorities, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the NSL statutes. We further urge Congress to pass legislation requiring comprehensive transparency reporting by the federal government and clearly allowing for transparency reporting by companies without requiring companies to first seek permission from the government or the FISA Court.
This follows on a somewhat somewhat similar letter from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner and Zoe Lofgren to Attorney General Holder and Director of National Intelligence Clapper, urging them "to authorize U.S. companies to release information regarding national security requests for user data."

Both letters point out that they're just looking for the ability to reveal specific numbers about orders received and user accounts impacted, but obviously not further information that might reveal the details of any investigations. Basically, they're asking for "just the metadata."

You may have spotted the irony, pointed out by Ashkan Soltani: Defenders of many of the government's surveillance programs have repeatedly trotted out the "just metadata" argument for why all of this surveillance is no problem, claiming that mere metadata doesn't reveal anything important. Yet, when it comes to their own metadata about their own surveillance programs, suddenly it will reveal all their secrets? (And I won't even get into the fact that only some of the surveillance programs are "just metadata").

So, which is it, feds? Is "just metadata" nothing too important, or does it reveal everything?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  • icon
    dennis deems (profile), Jul 18th, 2013 @ 11:58am

    Never thought I'd see the day FreedomWorks would voice support from something alongside EFF and ACLU!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:33pm


      Indeed many surprises in that list.

      I find it obvious but rather interesting to see Microsoft in there. They took an enormous blow to the trust people had in them and now privacy issues are kind of mandatory effort for them. Then you see their support for absurds like CISPA and others.. Sure they are doing it right now but it'll take a whole lot of sustained efforts in that direction if they want to revert the image they got right now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:53pm

        Re: Re:

        Sure they are doing it right now but it'll take a whole lot of sustained efforts in that direction if they want to revert the image they got right now.

        More than they can muster without a complete change in corporate culture. Microsoft's image is the result of their behavior since the '80s. There's decades of damage to undo there.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    From the great point department, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:25pm

    Great point.

    The simple questions department is great.

    Maybe a summary of Masnick's simple questions about NSA spying is warranted.

    Here's my takeaways:

    1) If everything is both legal and authorized, why is disclosure harmful?
    2) If collection of metadata does not violate privacy, why can't public know details (but not content) of NSA spying?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Arthur Moore (profile), Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:28pm

    The bear in the room

    Put a big enough bear in a room and everyone will stop fighting.

    In this case the companies probably aren't even allowed to deny the allegations being made against them. That's not just bad for transparency, it's bad for business.

    It's similar to a politician getting a speeding ticket, but his opponent saying he was arrested for drunk driving with underage girls in the car. If he can't say anything about why he was pulled over (national security) then he can't refute the claims.

    The analogy isn't perfect, but it gives you an idea of why almost everyone wants the numbers released.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    vastrightwing, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:32pm

    They can't allow it.

    These are the same people that spend more than they make, but we end up out of our homes if we do it.
    They demand big business pay a living wage, yet don't pay their own employees anything close to what they foist on business.
    They demand we participate in an insurance scam they are exempt from.
    They build schools for us they don't send their own children to.
    They keep raising our taxes expecting us to pay more when we make less.
    They print money and reduce our buying power and throw us in jail if we print money.
    They lie and tell us they are transparent, yet regularly have secret courts making bad law we are forced to abide by.
    They scare us with theatre, raise the price of travel while they fly on military craft we paid for.
    They use our money to spy on us, and tell us it's for our own good? Oh and then they lie about it.
    They have laws they expect us to abide by and they and their supporters break them with impunity.
    I could go on and on

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 1:36pm

      Re: They can't allow it.

      Your crackpot view of the world would be hilarious if it weren't so poisonous. Please just take your inestimable awesomeness away from here, go join John Galt in the mountain fortress wherever it is and leave us in peace.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      jingoi, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 4:33pm

      Re: They can't allow it.

      That's why these assholes need to die. No more negotiating, no more 20-80 deals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      netdragon, Aug 16th, 2013 @ 2:25pm

      Re: They can't allow it.

      Bad analogy regarding living wage, and kind of cold, and that's coming from me when I'm the successful businessman most people aspire to be. The U.S. government also doesn't pay their employees $6-$7 bucks minimum wage an hour. Minimum wage has decreased relative to inflation since 1950, yet productivity has increased 300% per hour worked. It's clear minimum wage needs to be raised. Gradually raising employee minimum wages to $10-$15 an hour just to bring it back to 1950 levels (relative to inflation) is more than fair for any state, no matter how cheap it is to live there. Minimum wage was never indexed for inflation, and that was a mistake.

      I personally think it should be $12/yr and indexed for inflation and the only reason I'm not saying $15 is because it wouldn't be "fair" to states like Mississippi that pride themselves on extremely low costs of living. By "fair" I don't think we should be extolling the virtues of states that intentionally decrease programs for their high number of poor in exchange for lower taxes to attract businesses that exploit their poor citizens who have no programs to help them out of poverty. I only say it because it would economically wreck those states to raise minimum wage too high. Plus, high-pay states like CT, MA and NY that do need the $15+ amount will adjust their minimum wage up to $15+ anyway if the federal wage is at $12.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:41pm

    Oooh, sent a "strong letter"! Now I totally believe these mega-corps are on our side.

    This is sheer propaganda, supporting the limited hangout, to create the notion that there's ANY distance between those corporations and the NSA (remember, Snowden says the NSA "directly" accesses their servers), to posiition these mega-corporations as champions of the public. PHONY AS PRO-WRESTLING! ... Oooh, that may shock Techdirt fanboys.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    gorehound (profile), Jul 18th, 2013 @ 12:59pm

    Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, Mozilla, Reddit, Tumblr and others................If you had any legs to you at all you would see this Info somehow got "Leaked" .

    Grow A Few !!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 1:11pm

    if it's them looking at our stuff, it's nothing, but if it's us looking at the stuff that's been collected about us by them, it's everything. seems like the usual two faced, double standard coming in again!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 1:58pm

    just out of curiosity, could someone tell me when we, the people of the USA, started working for the various security services, please? i was under the impression that they worked for us! we do, after all, pay their wages, from the lowliest of the low to the number one head honcho!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 4:05pm

    I have a feeling this is going to have to come out in the open. With the global uproar, I can definitely see multiple lawsuits against everyone listed in the Prism program, as most probably do some funky accounting (Dutch Sandwich) around the globe. Much like the US seized MegaUpload's servers, I could see other countries threatening the same situation on MS, Google, Facebook, etc. It's simply a seizure of evidence of the crime. Our 21% of the GDP (Wikipedia) certainly isn't good enough to compete with a global economy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 18th, 2013 @ 6:57pm

    The unconstitutional spies in US Gov. know how much information metadata reveals.

    When dealing with the NSA you have to remember that they're compulsive liars. So when they tell you something, they actually mean the complete opposite of what they're telling you.

    lawful = unlawful
    harmless = devestating
    constitutional = unconstitutional

    Yah dig?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ethorad (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 1:17am


    We've already seen their response to people releasing meta-data on their surveillance efforts. They're hounded across the world, pinned down in a Russian airport with sovereign planes grounded to try and find them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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