Google Fights Spying Gag Order, But Key Details Would Be Missing Even If Successful

As it promised it would, Google is fighting the government’s gag order on releasing how many users are monitored by the National Security Agency. Unlike Facebook and Microsoft, Google and Twitter publicly rejected a government deal to disclose the total number of spying warrants for user data, which would include (but not detail) the number of requests coming from the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).

“Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests—as some companies have been permitted to do—would be a backward step for our users,” explained a public statement following the petition.

Unfortunately, as both I and the Washington Post have suggested, even if Google is successful, the most pressing concerns would remain a mystery. Google’s transparency report discloses the number of court orders and users affected, but not what data was given up. Can the government read emails, monitor Gchats and Google Voice phone calls, as leaker Edward Snowden has claimed?

Additionally, if it’s true that the government can demand broad swaths of data, like search logs, the number of affected users could number in the millions. Releasing the total number of users affected would be tantamount to revealing vital sources and methods of surveillance.

Citing their 1st Amendment rights, the petition notes that “Google’s reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media…Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities.”

There is reason to be optimistic that allowing Google to detail the FISA requests would help repair its reputation. Facebook reported that between the 9,000-10,000 government requests, only 18,000-19,000 users have been affected. This seems to cast doubt that a single government request permits wholesale monitoring of an entire population’s activity. So, while we wouldn’t know what was being given away, most users could breathe easy that they aren’t a target.

I’m sympathetic to Google’s position; certainly they probably want to disclose everything, or just stop the snooping altogether. But, even under the best case scenario, the public is still in the dark.

Read Google’s full petition below.