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Tech Companies Allowed to Reveal More About U.S. Surveillance, But Not Much

In his speech announcing surveillance reforms this month, President Obama said, "We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government." At the time the administration actually hadn't pinned down what that meant, but after further negotiations with major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, the Justice Department announced Monday that the companies will be allowed to disclose more information about government demands for customers' data – though, users will still have only a hazy idea of what's being collected.

Internet companies have been fighting the idea that they willingly hand over users' information since Edward Snowden's first leak, but previously they were only allowed to disclose the number of administrative subpoenas, known as national security letters, they receive from the FBI in increments of 1,000 – and they orders from the FISA court had to be excluded.

The New York Times reports that under the new deal, companies can include FISA orders, "But they must choose between being more specific about the number of demands or about the type of demands." They can disclose FISA orders and national security letters separately in increments of 1,000, or disclose the combined number of government requests in increments of 250.

Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Yahoo had taken their fight to release more data about surveillance request to the FISA court, but dropped their suits against the government in response to the new rules. "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," the companies said in a joint statement. "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."

The "step" is smaller than many were hoping for. Politico notes that civil-liberties groups such as the ACLU and the Center for Democracy and Technology have called for the information to be released without rounded numbers, and several lawmakers' surveillance reform bills would allow tech companies to disclose more information. On Monday, Apple amended its latest transparency report to reflect the new rules, providing an example of how little information the new disclosures reveal about the government's surveillance: In the first six months of 2013, Apple received between 0 and 249 national security orders affecting between 0 and 249 accounts.

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Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images