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The transparency report has quickly become the potential saving grace of privacy, but why is it so important?
Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter all release transparency reports, which list the type and number of government data requests each company receives. When these reports include exact numbers and shed a bright light on government activity, the feds must act above the table.
“The benefit is pretty significant … with transparency comes accountability,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Nate Cardozo in an interview with VentureBeat “The first step in any real democratic process requires that transparency.”
The government will not, however, permit the companies to report exact numbers for national security requests and how many of those requests came under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Section 702, Patriot Act Section 215, or national security letters.
Instead, they have to aggregate the numbers or provide a range. And that’s even if the government permits a company to publish that data. Google may publish national security letter information, but not FISA information. Facebook may publish FISA information, but it must lumped such data in with NSL information.
“We just need the companies to be allowed to release the numbers. We need to stop bickering about what ranges,” said Cardozo. “We haven’t heard any justification to how releasing these numbers actually hurts national security.”
This week, Google and Microsoft both hit the government hard with petitions saying they have a First Amendment right to publish this kind of information. Today, news came out that Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon demanding information about the law enforcement data requests it receives, how many were turned down, and why.
The Department of Justice continues to push off these petitions.
“There should be no question that they have this right,” said Cardozo. “The fact that the government disagrees is not surprising but is extraordinarily disappointing.”
But the government seems to recognize the need. It decided to publish its own transparency report, but it’s not until we get individual companies reporting that we can finally get a third-party view of government activity.
Cardozo says the power really lies with the privacy sector now. Companies have big voices and can hit the government from a number of angles: pushing back in the press and pushing back in the courts. An example of pushing back in the press is CloudFlare chief executive Matthew Prince. He explained to the Washington Post that these “gag orders,” demanding silence surrounding data requests, are “insane.”
Consumers may have a role as activists as well. Unfortunately, it seems the advice continues to be “contact your representative.” There are “over a dozen bills” passing through congress that deal with these issues. Some of the bills attempt to reform the FISA court, others try to stop these programs altogether, and others simply try to increase transparency.
Because there’s nowhere to hide anymore. The information about these intelligence programs and gag-ordered data requests is out. It’s time to give some data back to the public in the form of how much and under which policies the government collects information.