NSA Surveillance Settlement Lets Tech Giants Disclose More Info

By Brett Snider, Esq. on January 28, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Tech titans like Google and Facebook have won a small victory for transparency under a settlement that will allow for more disclosures of government surveillance.

The deal, announced Monday, was reached between the Obama administration and several Internet industry leaders (Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Google). It gives these companies the option to disclose more details about the government's requests for consumer information, Politico reported.

This is a good start for these tech giants, but does this mean an end to secret surveillance?

Settlement Promises More Transparency

Many of the nine major tech companies implicated in the NSA PRISM surveillance program are still scrambling to regain whatever scraps of public goodwill they can. For its part, Google has railed against the government's gag order in court, demanding that the company be allowed to reveal the nature of the government's requests for information under the First Amendment.

Google's legal arguments packed more emotion than actual substance, and now a more promising avenue seems to be Monday's announced settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. According to Politico, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that the settlement allows companies to disclose:

  • The number of national security orders and requests,
  • The number of customers targeted, and
  • The "underlying legal authorities."

This new transparency doesn't come without any strings. According to The Wall Street Journal, most companies will have to report the number of requests in broad ranges -- for example, in 250- or 1,000-request increments. For large companies, reporting 0 to 249 requests in a fiscal year may seem like a plus, but it may not have the same effect for smaller tech outfits.

Startups Barred From Disclosing

Strangely, in a settlement that seems to push for transparency, the new deal brokered between this tech coalition and the Obama administration seems to throw startups under the bus. Inc. reports that "companies less than two years old" won't be able to make these transparency disclosures for a period of two years.

This may leave new tech businesses at the mercy of new surveillance requests with no recourse to reassure consumers. This PR advantage could mean success or failure even for gaming startups, as the NSA has even moved into the MMORPG world to hunt for terrorism.

If these companies wish to make their own disclosures, they would need to file suit themselves, as the settlement establishes no legal precedent.

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