U.S. to let tech companies release more surveillance data

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Story highlights

  • Issue involves U.S. surveillance requests for customer data; controversy arose from Snowden leaks
  • Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Linked-In sued the government
  • They want to show their customers how many requests come in for information
  • Government and companies reach an agreement to resolve differences

The Obama administration will allow technology companies to release more information about the number of government surveillance requests for their customer data, according to an agreement announced Monday.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Linked-In sued the government last summer in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking to disclose the data as a way to show customers how many snooping requests they receive and are required by court order to comply with. Apple has also made legal filings in support of the companies' lawsuit.

Under the agreement, companies will be allowed to publish broad categories of data on government requests for customer information made via national security letters, and orders made by surveillance court, both for general customer data and for content of customer communications.

The companies will also be allowed to say how many customer accounts are affected. The detail companies can provide will be limited to groups of a thousand, or 250, depending on which option companies choose to use.

The court complaints have been dismissed, a spokeswoman for the companies said in a statement.

"We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive," the statement said. "We're pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we'll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed."

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The lawsuit by the companies followed leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that made public the existence of certain NSA surveillance programs.

The government has fought the corporate request, saying even broad numbers would hurt national security. The companies have argued they should be allowed to publish aggregate data, in part to reassure customers.

The companies contend their businesses are hurt by any perception they are arms of vast government surveillance.

Currently, they can release information on general law-enforcement requests with no specifics.

In a January 17 speech at the Justice Department, President Barack Obama signaled his administration was willing to allow the companies to make data public.

The night before the speech, tech company lawyers met at the White House with lawyers from the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, according to a government official familiar with the meeting.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, and his chief of staff, David O'Neil, proposed a compromise that prompted the White House to include the issue in the President's speech.

Last Thursday and Friday, the company lawyers and Justice Department officials completed terms of their agreement, the official said.