Facebook, Yahoo will hand over your data, but want you to know about it

Sep 10, 2013 at 2:15 PM ET

Sure, they’ll hand over your private data. But if Facebook and Yahoo have their way, they’ll let you know they had to.

The two companies filed suits with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s (FISA) court on Monday, taking a stand against government intelligence operations that fish for private internet data. If successful, the companies will be able to periodically publish all orders made by the government for secret account information that the sites usually keep to themselves.

But the suits, which mirror those filed by Google and Microsoft execs earlier this summer, aren’t just battles against government intelligence programs with their alphabet soup acronyms. They’re also PR power moves for all four of these companies, since they’re helping the tech giants distance themselves from data-hunting, privacy-squashing federal organizations—and by extension, making certain their users aren’t driven away in fear.

“The actions and statements of the U.S. government have not adequately addressed the concerns of people around the world about whether their information is safe and secure with internet companies,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a blog post on Monday. “We believe there is more information that the public deserves to know.”

And they all share the same mission. “Although we filed independent lawsuits, these actions stem from a common interest in ensuring that we can provide the most accurate information to the public about the national security requests we receive from the U.S. Government,” writes one Yahoo spokesperson in an email.

The petitions are also important for the companies’ bottom lines. “It’s certainly going to benefit the companies to protect their customers’ privacy,” says Kathleen McClellan, national security and human rights counsel at the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., that supports whistle-blowers. “It reflects a real change in public opinion that customers are demanding that the companies stand up to the government.”

Confusion—and consternation—surrounding the NSA and FISA has been brewing since May, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released secret documents that outlined the existence of Prism, a confidential electronic intelligence program run by the NSA, FISA and Congress.

Since the leak, all four companies have been worried about how Prism will affect their reputations. Back in June, Facebook’s chief executive and king entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg took to the company’s blog to personally respond to the “outrageous” coverage of Prism. “When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if it is required by law,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.”

And in July, all four companies came together with a handful of other tech companies to compose a letter to the White House about government requests for data. “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,” they explain in their letter.

The companies have seen a few wins of late in their push for transparency. Facebook and Yahoo have already published a first round of reports on government requests that occurred between January 1 to July 30, 2013. Most of these requests, Facebook explains, are ones for “basic subscriber information.” Sometimes, however, they are requests for “IP address logs or actual account content.” Yahoo’s own “transparency report” points out that government requests in that time period affected only .01 percent of Yahoo’s users.

In late August, the government announced that it, too, plans to assist the tech companies’ efforts to spread awareness online. In a blog post on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s new Tumblr page, IContheRecord.tumblr.com, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained: “[T]he DNI has determined, with the concurrence of the IC, that going forward the IC will publicly release, on an annual basis, aggregate information concerning compulsory legal process under certain national security authorities.”

As for whether the companies will be able to do the same with permission from FISA, experts aren’t sure.”It’s hard to say whether they’ll be successful,” McClellan says. “The FISA court has come under fire recently, as it should have. Hopefully the FISA court will stand up to the government a bit more.”

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