Tech groups ask US for transparency in secret data requests

Large Internet players and trade groups want less secrecy around government orders for data

Influential technology companies and groups want the US government to lift restrictions on publicizing secret requests for user data as the fallout continues over the scale of government surveillance.

Google, Facebook and Reddit are among the many signatories to a letter dated Thursday asking for more transparency in national-security related investigations. The letter's addressees include President Barack Obama, the National Security Agency and many House and Senate members.

"Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement--related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations," according to the letter, a copy of which was provided to IDG News Service.

"We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government's national security--related authorities," it said.

Several data collection projects were revealed in late May by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in a Moscow airport while seeking asylum arrangements. Documents provided to The Guardian and other media outlets described sweeping surveillance projects that collect email metadata, instant messaging traffic and file transfers.

Technology companies are legally compelled to comply with government requests for data. But the requests, some of which fall under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), cannot be publicized under orders from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

The letter asks the U.S. Department of Justice to let companies publish statistics on government requests "under specific national security authorities." It also calls on Congress to pass legislation requiring the same kind of reporting from the government.

"This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use," the letter said.

The U.S. intelligence community's efforts had been described before by previous NSA whistle blowers. But the slides and information supplied by Snowden added a fresh new level of detail to recent spying efforts and the government's enlistment of some of the largest Internet players.

Yahoo has asked the intelligence court to release information dating from 2008 that shows it resisted government orders to turn over data. The FISC ordered on Monday that the government redact classified information in order to facilitate its public release.

Microsoft and Google have also recently filed motions with the court asking for permission to release information on national security orders and directives.

The letter will be made public Thursday morning U.S. time.

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