US senators, Google push for clarity on internet surveillance

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US senators, Google push for clarity on internet surveillance

PRISM political fallout continues.

A group of American senators are attempting to introduce a law to reveal the secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which is what the United States National Security Agency (NSA) relies on for its PRISM internet spy programme and large-scale capture of phone records.

According to The Guardian, the bill was put forward by Democrat senator Jeff Merkley and is supported by seven other senators from both his party and the Republicans. It aims to disclose the opinions of the court and its interpretations of crucial passages of the US counter-terrorist Patriot Act.

FISA court rulings are classified information and Merkley and other senators, such as Democrat Joe Wyden, have long been concerned that the interpretation of the law in these cases differs from the language used in the Patriot Act itself, and have sought declassification. The efforts have failed so far.

Earlier today, Wyden attacked the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, for not providing straight answers to senators on whether or not the government was collecting data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.

Clapper first responded that the NSA did not collect data on Americans, but then altered his answer to: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."

Adding further pressure on the Obama administration to shed light on the volume of its internet surveillance activities and how they are conducted, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond published an open letter to US attorney-general Eric Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller, asking for permission to publish more data on national security requests.

Drummond wrote that disclosing the number of requests under the FISA would help dispel the notion that the US government had full access to users' data.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the US government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue.

However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

Google has strenuously denied being part of the NSA's PRISM internet mass surveillance programme, despite apparent confirmation from the US spy agency that the web provider is involved. 

Today, a broad coalition of organisations including the Mozilla Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union launched the Stop Watching Us campaign, calling for the full extent of the NSA's spying to be revealed and demanding that blanket surveillance of anyone living in the United States be prohibited.

Update 11:00am: Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot put out a statement saying the company encouraged government to be more transparent about national security programs:

"In the past, we have questioned the value of releasing a transparency report that, because of exactly these types of government restrictions on disclosure, is necessarily incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to users," Ullyot said.

"We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond.

"We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information."

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