Tech companies get a little less silent about government data collection

Some major tech companies are starting to push back against government orders for personal data, though they still must comply with court orders

According to the Washington Post, a number of major U.S. tech companies are standing up to government demands for the data of their users. Some are even going so far as to notify some users when their data has been requested.

No surprise, then, to hear that the U.S. government is not thrilled at all about such a turn of events and is claiming that such disclosures will make it more difficult for them to fight crime both on- and off-line.

The Post claims that Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are changing their policies to allow users to be notified when a government data collection is ordered. Most of those orders come in the form of subpoenas, which can be issued by a wide range of agencies and only demand information that might be relevant to an ongoing investigation. Such requests typically come with a note urging the companies to not notify the subject of the investigation about the data collection procedure, but those notes are not by themselves legally binding.

However, that still leaves the U.S. government plenty of leeway by which to seek tech companies' silence. Requests approved by the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) come with an accompanying gag order, as do national security letters issued by the FBI. The bar for obtaining such orders is correspondingly higher, but that hasn't stopped the government from using those methods in increasing amounts over the past few years.

Also, it isn't as if the companies in question are taking an absolutist stance on notifying users, especially when life and limb might be in jeopardy. Google, for instance, is prepared to not notify users about a data request if someone may be placed in imminent danger by doing so. The other companies are said to be contemplating similar revisions to their own rules. Clearly, though, there's going to be tension between what the government feels is an imminent danger and what a company like Facebook or Google feels is one.

After the Snowden revelations, the urge to push back against silence over government data requests was emboldened, but companies are still a long way from getting the kind of transparency they asked for. Back in 2013, all four of the above-mentioned companies petitioned the FISC to speak more freely about government data orders. The Obama administration has made provisions for companies to speak about how many gag-ordered data requests they get, but the data released is still vague and works best only when used in contrast with other companies or countries -- e.g., as a way to determine which companies are most vigorously subpoenaed compared to others.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation runs a yearly "Who Has Your Back?" report that assesses the data protection behaviors of major Internet outfits, with stars awarded for different protections -- fighting for privacy in court or Congress, issuing transparency reports, requiring warrants for content, and so on. As of 2013, Dropbox, Google, LinkedIn, Sonic.net, Spideroak, and Twitter all rated five stars or more (out of six). Microsoft earned four; Apple, however, earned only one. Yahoo earned only one, but one earmarked for fighting back against abuse of the FISC's authority to obtain data. Verizon, ignominously, earned zero.

Given that the last edition of the EFF report was released in late April of 2013, a 2014 edition is likely to be along shortly after the above-mentioned companies release amended versions of their policies for data collection.

This story, "Tech companies get a little less silent about government data collection," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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