Oct. 2 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government urged a secret court to reject a request by Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc. to let them publish the aggregate numbers and scope of user data they turn over to intelligence agencies.
Revealing such data “on a company-by-company basis would cause serious harm to national security,” government lawyers said in court papers made public today.
The three companies, as well as Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp., made the request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington.
The secret court issues warrants for collecting foreign intelligence inside the U.S. The companies are seeking a declaration allowing them to release the statistics without violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The companies’ request “would effectively give every communications provider in the United States the right to reveal the nature and scope of any FISA surveillance of their communications platforms,” government lawyers wrote.
“Such information would be invaluable to our adversaries, who could thereby derive a clear picture of where the government’s surveillance efforts are directed and how its surveillance activities change over time,” the government said.
The government’s brief was filed Sept. 30 and posted today on the court’s website, with portions redacted.
The role of private companies has come under scrutiny since Edward Snowden, a computer technician who was a contractor for the National Security Agency, disclosed earlier this year that the agency is collecting millions of U.S. residents’ telephone records and the computer communications of foreigners from Google and other Internet companies under court order. Snowden is now in Russia under temporary asylum.
The government contends that its intelligence-gathering has helped prevent numerous terrorist attacks in the U.S. and other countries.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, said in court papers filed in June that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment gives it the right to publish statistics including the total number of users or accounts affected by the government data requests.
The surveillance program, code-named Prism, traces its roots to the warrantless domestic-surveillance efforts under former President George W. Bush. According to information provided by Snowden, Prism gathers e-mails, videos and other private data of foreign surveillance targets through arrangements that vary by company and are overseen by the panel of judges who work in secret.
Yahoo, the largest U.S. Web portal, said in June that it got as many as 13,000 requests for information from U.S. law enforcement agencies in the six months ending in May, with the most common types related to criminal investigations. Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, California, said it couldn’t lawfully break out FISA requests.
The companies are asking the court to let them differentiate between national security and criminal requests.
--With assistance from Sara Forden and Chris Strohm in Washington. Editors: Elizabeth Wasserman, Steven Komarow
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