Tech companies announce numbers of secret queries

For the first time, technology companies have disclosed how many requests for information from Internet users have been made by the NSA and the FBI. They have recently been allowed to do so, although the extent to which they are allowed to do so is still limited.

Figures from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo show that they all received between 0 and 1000 FISA queries for content information in the first half of 2013. However, the number of accounts from which information was requested varies widely; between 5,000 and 5,999 at Facebook, but between 30,000 and 30,999 at Yahoo. In addition to requests for substantive information, the NSA and the FBI can also request metadata, but that happens much less often.

Also, the statistics must be rounded to the nearest thousand if they choose to separately state how many FISA requests they have received. If they group all kinds of information into one heap, the figures do not need to be rounded.

LinkedIn chose not to break down the number of FISA requests, reporting only that it had 70 data requests from the US government for a total of 84 accounts. In 57 percent of the cases, the company handed over data. Apple received 927 requests for 2,330 accounts, and provided data 81 percent of the time.

Google writes that the ability to release more metrics is “a step in the right direction,” but thinks more disclosure is still needed. “We want to release the precise numbers of requests and the number of users affected by them in a timely manner,” a company lawyer wrote. Microsoft emphasizes that “only a fraction” of its users have to deal with FISA requests, but the company is concerned about attempts by the US government to obtain information from users out of court, for example by tapping fiber optic cables. Only last week it was announced that technology companies may be more open about the data requests they receive from the NSA and the FBI on the basis of the so-called FISA law.

Number of FISA requests for substantive information between January 1 and June 30, 2013
Number of requestsNumber of accounts requested
google 0-999 9000-9999
Microsoft 0-999 15,000-15,999
facebook 0-999 5000-5999
Yahoo 0-999 30,000-30,999

Source: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft