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Facebook, Google, Yahoo reveal details of NSA surveillance

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    A man looks at his cellphone as he walks on the street in downtown Madrid. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

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    Feb. 3, 2013: A Google blog post describes new data the company is able to reveal about government surveillance. (Google)

The Internet’s biggest companies have released a sliver of new information on the government’s national security requests, a small bit of fresh data about the widespread surveillance that has shaken the public’s belief in online privacy.

A compromise brokered last week between the Justice Department and Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn allowed those companies to at last release some information about the number of requests for information the government served through Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. Before the deal, the law stipulated that surveillance agencies could demand users’ personal information and bar a company from even discussing the request.

'Last summer’s revelations about gov't surveillance remind us of the challenges secrecy can present to a democracy.'

- Google’s  Richard Salgado, legal director, law enforcement and information security

“Last summer’s revelations about government surveillance remind us of the challenges that secrecy can present to a democracy that relies on public debate,” wrote Google’s  Richard Salgado, legal director, law enforcement and information security, in a blog post about the new data.

The new information doesn’t reveal a great deal.

Google said that it received somewhere between 0 and 999 requests every six months under the law; the number of users or accounts the court sought data on varied, and was never presented specifically Among requests in which user information was demanded, the most data was sought between July and Dec. of 2012 -- somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 users.

Google admitted that the information was helpful, but not complete.

“We still believe more transparency is needed so everyone can better understand how surveillance laws work and decide whether or not they serve the public interest,” Salgado wrote.

Data from the other companies revealed similar snippets of information, again limited to data bands of 1,000. Requests peaked from Jan. to June of 2013, when Yahoo was served between 0 and 999 requests for information on as many as 30,999 user accounts.

In similar posts, LinkedIn, Facebook and Microsoft offered some information on FISA requests, and said they would push to be allowed to publish more. All companies noted that the new data was at least a step in the right direction.

“Yahoo will continue to protect the privacy of our users and to ensure our ability to defend it,” wrote Ron Bell, general counsel, and Aaron Altschuler, associate general counsel, law enforcement and security, in a blog post on the company’s Tumblr site. “This includes advocating strenuously for meaningful reform around government surveillance, demanding that government requests be made through lawful means and for lawful purposes, and fighting government requests that we deem unclear, improper, overbroad, or unlawful.”

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