(Rewrites throughout, adds details about Apple, adds comment
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON Jan 27 U.S. technology companies may
give the public and their customers more detail about the court
orders they receive related to surveillance under an agreement
they reached on Monday with the Obama administration.
Companies such as Google Inc and Microsoft Corp
have been prohibited from disclosing even an
approximate number of orders they received from the U.S. Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court. They could give only an
aggregate number of U.S. demands that combined surveillance
court orders, letters from the FBI, subpoenas in run-of-the-mill
criminal cases and other requests.
The deal frees the companies to say, for example,
approximately how many orders they received in a six-month
period from the surveillance court.
Apple Inc quickly seized on the agreement to
disclose that it had received fewer than 250 demands related to
national security during the first six months of 2013 - a number
the company previously was barred from giving and that it said
was "infinitesimal relative to the hundreds of millions of
accounts registered with Apple."
Tech companies have sought to clarify their relationships
with U.S. law enforcement and spying agencies since June, when
leaks to the news media by former National Security Agency
contractor Edward Snowden began to show the depth of U.S. spying
President Barack Obama's administration, however, was wary
of disclosing data it believed might help suspected militants in
other countries avoid surveillance.
The dispute wound up in front of the surveillance court, a
secret court in Washington, D.C., that oversees national
security investigations. Five companies asked the court to grant
them the authority to disclose data about the court orders they
The agreement, which was filed on Monday with the
surveillance court, brings an end to the litigation.
The five companies said in a joint statement: "We filed our
lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know
about the volume and types of national security requests we
receive. We're pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that
we and other providers can disclose this information."
The companies were Facebook Inc, Google, LinkedIn
Corp, Microsoft and Yahoo! Inc. Apple filed a
brief supporting the five companies.
The agreement applies to all companies and gives them
options on how to present information.
NUMBERS OF ORDERS
A company that offers email services, for example, would be
able to say it received between zero and 999 orders from the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during a six-month
period for email content belonging to someone outside the United
"Permitting disclosure of this aggregate data addresses an
important area of concern to communications providers and the
public," Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National
Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement.
The agreement does not cover what the NSA might gather
covertly in bulk outside the United States, only what it gets
directly from the companies.
The agreement carves out some other exceptions. The numbers
companies can give are only ranges: sometimes in increments of
250, and sometimes in increments of 1,000. Apple said the
national security orders it received totaled between zero and
If a company introduced a new communications platform, it
would need to wait two years before telling the public about a
court order for information about that platform. The silence is
designed to lull suspected militants into using, or continuing
to use, new forms of communication.
Obama had pledged greater transparency about U.S.
surveillance programs, most recently in a speech he delivered at
the Justice Department on Jan. 17.
After months of negotiations among the tech companies,
Justice Department lawyers and intelligence officials, a
breakthrough came about the night before that speech, according
to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At that meeting with White House officials, James Cole, the
deputy attorney general, described details of a possible
compromise, the official said. The reaction within the
administration was positive, and during conference calls the
following week, the companies agreed to the proposal.
The companies said in their statement on Monday that they
would consider lobbying lawmakers on other, unspecified fronts.
"While this is a very positive step, we'll continue to
encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of
the reforms we believe are needed," they said.