For the first time, the government gave Facebook and Microsoft permission to disclose top line data about the national security-related requests they received, both companies said in blog posts Friday evening.
However, the FBI and Department of Justice compelled the two companies to mask the specificity of the requests by requiring that the national security requests be combined into an aggregate number reporting all law enforcement requests, including local and state inquiries. Neither company was allowed to confirm or report FISA orders.
Both companies immediately published what data they could, calling it a good start towards increased transparency and rebuilding trust with users and the public. They also stressed the requests impacted only a small fraction of their users.
"We appreciate the effort by U.S. government today to allow us to report more information. We understand they have to weigh carefully the impacts on national security of allowing more disclosures. With more time, we hope they will take further steps. Transparency alone may not be enough to restore public confidence, but it's a great place to start," John Frank, vp and deputy general counsel for Microsoft wrote in a blog post.
"As of today, the government will only authorize us to communicate about these numbers in aggregate, and as a range," Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel wrote in a blog post. "This is progress, but we're continuing to push for even more transparency."
For the six months ended Dec. 31, 2012, Microsoft reported it received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. government entities, including local, state and federal.
Facebook reported it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from all government entities affecting between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts. The requests, Facebook's Ullyot said, ran the gamut from a local sheriff trying to find a missing child and a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat.
Google wasn't satisfied with the government's reporting restrictions. Earlier this week, it sent a letter to the FBI and DOJ requesting the ability to report FISA and other national security requests as a separate line in its transparency report.
"We have always believed that it's important to differentiate between different types of government requests," said Google in a statement. "We already publish criminal requests separately from national security letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately."