Facebook Signs Letter Seeking More Transparency From Federal Government On National Security Data Requests

By David Cohen 

Facebook was among the more than 60 companies, investors, civil-liberties groups, and trade groups to sign a letter to top federal government officials requesting the ability to disclose more information about data requests related to national security, Time reported, as fallout from the National Security Agency’s Prism initiative continues.

Last month, after receiving permission from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot revealed in a release on Facebook’s Newsroom that the social network received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for user data from U.S. government entities at all levels, local and national, for the six months ending Dec. 31, 2012, related to between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.

The letter, dated July 18, read:

We, the undersigned, are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the U.S. government to Internet, telephone, and Web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers. First, the U.S. government should ensure that those companies that are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users’ data are allowed to regularly report statistics reflecting: the number of government requests for information about their users made under specific legal authorities such as Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the various National Security Letter (NSL) statutes, and others; the number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested under each authority; and the number of requests under each authority that sought communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.

Second, the government should also augment the annual reporting that is already required by statute by issuing its own regular “transparency report” providing the same information: the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each.

As an initial step, we request that the Department of Justice, on behalf of the relevant executive branch agencies, agree that Internet, telephone, and Web-based service providers may publish specific numbers regarding government requests authorized under specific national security authorities, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the NSL statutes. We further urge Congress to pass legislation requiring comprehensive transparency reporting by the federal government and clearly allowing for transparency reporting by companies without requiring companies to first seek permission from the government or the FISA Court. 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. We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national-security-related authorities. 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 an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications. Just as the U.S. has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights. We look forward to working with you to set a standard for transparency reporting that can serve as a positive example for governments across the globe. Thank you.

The letter was sent to the following government officials:

  • President Barack Obama
  • Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio)
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
  • Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
  • House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.)
  • Holder
  • NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
  • House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.)
  • Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
  • House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.)

And the letter was signed by the following entities:


  • AOL
  • Apple
  • CloudFlare
  • Credo Mobile
  • Digg
  • Dropbox
  • Evoca
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Heyzap
  • LinkedIn
  • Meetup
  • Microsoft
  • Mozilla
  • Reddit
  • Salesforce.com
  • Sonic.net
  • Stripe
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo
  • YouNow

Nonprofit organizations and trade associations:

  • Access
  • American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • American Library Association
  • American Society of News Editors
  • Americans for Tax Reform
  • Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School
  • Center for Democracy & Technology
  • Center for Effective Government
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • Computer & Communications Industry Association
  • The Constitution Project
  • Demand Progress
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • First Amendment Coalition
  • Foundation for Innovation and Internet Freedom
  • Freedom to Read Foundation
  • FreedomWorks
  • Global Network Initiative
  • GP-Digital
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Internet Association
  • Liberty Coalition
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • National Coalition Against Censorship
  • New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute
  • OpenTheGovernment.org
  • Project on Government Oversight
  • Public Knowledge
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Reporters Without Borders
  • TechFreedom
  • Wikimedia Foundation
  • World Press Freedom Committee


  • Boston Common Asset Management
  • Domini Social Investments
  • F&C Asset Management
  • New Atlantic Ventures
  • Union Square Ventures
  • Y Combinator

Readers: Should the federal government increase its transparency regarding national security data requests?

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