from the THIS-JUST-IN:-mumblemumble...gag-order...mumble dept
The government's embrace of transparency -- an uncomfortable hug forced on it like a drunken uncle at a wedding reception by the passage of the USA Freedom Act -- has paid off for a local computer concern. Google is now able to speak in non-specifics about one (1) National Security Letter it has received.
The national security letter issued to Google was mentioned without fanfare in Google’s latest bi-annual transparency report, which includes information on government requests for data the company received from around the world in the first half of 2016.
Google received the secret subpoena in first half of 2015, according to the report.
Here's the original wording from the report, which follows actual specifics about new countries Google can add to the list of entities demanding user info from it (Algeria, Belarus, Cayman Islands, El Salvador, Fiji, and Saudi Arabia):
[P]ursuant to the USA Freedom Act, the FBI lifted a gag restriction on an NSL issued in the second half of 2015.
The law requires the FBI to "periodically" review its NSL-related gag orders to see whether the restriction still needs to be in effect. Theoretically, the gag order should be lifted three years after the NSL is issued or the investigation concludes, whichever comes first. Theoretically. I guess we'll see if the gag order floodgates begin opening in 2019.
In addition to finally being able to barely talk about it, Google was also able to move the transparency dial forward exactly one click.
To reflect this, we have updated the range of NSLs received in that period — July to December 2015 — from 0-499 to 1-499.
What Google hasn't done is publish the request itself, something both Yahoo and Signal did once given the green light by the feds. It cited no reasons for withholding the contents. However, it may be unable to fully publish the letter, despite the lifting of the gag order, as The Intercept's Jenna McLaughlin points out.
It’s… unclear why Google wouldn’t immediately publish the document — unless the gag is only partially lifted, or the company is involved in ongoing litigation to challenge the order, neither of which were cited as reasons for holding it back.
In other news, Google saw an increase in FISA-ordered requests for user info, bumping it up by about 5,000 total accounts as compared to the previous reporting period.
Hopefully, Google's ungagged-but-still-secret NSL won't stay secret for much longer. It would be troubling if this were to become Google's standard policy -- the announcement of gag order removals but with no further details forthcoming. Not much "transparency" in the Transparency Report, unfortunately… not if that's how it's going to be handled.
True, much of the opacity is still the government's fault: the not-at-all-useful "banding" that makes NSL numbers impossible to parse (1-499 could mean one NSL… or almost 500 in one reporting period), the gag orders that remain in place forever, etc. But private companies shouldn't take their cues from naturally-secretive government agencies. They're pretty much all we have to provide us with an outside, somewhat unrestricted measure of the government's surveillance efforts.