Microsoft and Google are planning to sue the US government for the right to reveal more information about its official requests for user data collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa).
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Secret orders under the act have been used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other US government agencies to gather data about foreign internet users.
Microsoft and Google are among the top technology companies that have been trying to clarify their position on sharing data ever since they were linked to the NSA’s Prism internet surveillance programme.
Documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden in July 2013 named nine technology firms as suppliers of data to Prism, but all have denied giving the NSA direct access to their systems.
“We believe we have a clear right under the US Constitution to share more information with the public,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s legal counsel, wrote in a blog post.
Brad Smith said the purpose of the litigation is to uphold this right to enable the discloser of additional data.
Read more about Prism and the NSA
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- Security Think Tank: Prism is dangerous for everyone
- Security Think Tank: Prism – Sitting duck or elaborate honeypot?
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- US repeatedly hacked China, claims NSA whistleblower
- FBI spies on internet users
- UK links to US internet surveillance remain unclear
- Technology companies call for more transparency over data requests
- Compliance: The Edward Snowden, NSA program controversy continues
Microsoft and Google want to publish information that clearly shows the number of national security demands for user content, such as the text of an email.
“These figures should be published in a form that is distinct from the number of demands that capture only metadata such as the subscriber information associated with a particular email address,” said Smith.
“We believe it’s possible to publish these figures in a manner that avoids putting security at risk.”
According to Smith, the litigation comes after weeks of talks with the Department of Justice failed to result in an agreement on the issue.
"With the failure of our recent negotiations, we will move forward with litigation in the hope that the courts will uphold our right to speak more freely,” wrote Smith.
Fisa requests are granted by a special court that sits in secret and can grant the NSA permission to collect data stored by any company about a named person.
In 2012, the court granted 1,856 requests and turned none down, according to the Guardian.
In July 2013, Yahoo won the fight to have papers from a key 2008 court case declassified and published in a bid for greater transparency about the Prism programme.
The documents relate to a case in which Yahoo attempted to resist NSA demands for customer information, but its objections were overruled.
The case was subsequently used by the US government to persuade technology companies to co-operate with the NSA’s Prism programme.