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Google pushes secret court to lift gag order on secret surveillance

NSA Surveillance-Google.jpg

June 18, 2013: Google sharply challenged the federal government's gag order on its Internet surveillance program, citing what it described as a First Amendment right to divulge how many requests it receives from the government for data about its customers in the name of national security. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

It’s a secret … and even the secret is a secret.

The government has been secretly collecting information from many major Internet companies, including Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook, and a secret court order has prevented the Internet giants from even talking about it.

On Tuesday, Google fought back against the government’s restrictions, asking for the right to reveal more information about the data being demanded as part of Prism, the recently revealed highly classified National Security Agency program that seizes records from Internet companies.

'Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests would be a backward step for our users.'

- Google statement

“We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data,” the company wrote on Google+. “We have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests—as some companies have been permitted to do—would be a backward step for our users.”

Google has published a Transparency Report for years, which tabulates the information various governments have demanded and the Internet company’s compliance with those requests. But little information about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that acts them are included.

A note on the Transparency Report page explains: "On June 11, 2013, we asked the Department of Justice and FBI to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests for data, including FISA disclosures — in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. We await a response."

The news comes on the same day that Yahoo revealed how many requests for user data it has received from U.S. government agencies, putting the number between 12,000 and 13,000 in the six months that ended on May 31.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and General Counsel Ron Bell said in a blog post late Monday that the most common requests concerned fraud homicides, kidnappings, and other criminal investigations.

Yahoo said it plans to update the report twice a year. Later this summer, the company plans to issue a global law enforcement transparency report that covers the first half of this year.

Internet companies have asked the U.S. government to be able to share how many requests it received related to national security and how it handled them.

"As always, we will continually evaluate whether further actions can be taken to protect the privacy of our users and our ability to defend it," the blog post said.

The blog post did not say how many Yahoo users were affected or what percentage of the requests the company complied with.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.