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ACLU sues, tech giants asks permission to publish government data requests

A man walks past a Google sign in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, June 7, 2013. Google CEO Larry Page is denying reports linking the Internet search company to a secret government program that has provided the National Security Agency access to email...
A man walks past a Google sign in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, June 7, 2013. Google CEO Larry Page is denying reports linking the Internet search company...


On Tuesday, the ACLU announced that it was taking legal action against Director of National Intelligence James Clapper because of the court order to Verizon demanding phone records. Referring to the National Security Agency's surveillance practices as a "dragnet program," the ACLU's new lawsuit alleges that it is a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments.

"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," said ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer in a statement. "It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation. The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy."

Google, one of the companies allegedly feeding information into the top secret PRISM surveillance program, is looking to clear its name. Tuesday afternoon, the tech giant requested permission from the FBI and Justice Department to reveal information about government information requests made of the company.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue," Google's chief legal officer David  Drummond wrote in an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller. "However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

Facebook and Microsoft have also requested that they be allowed to publish data on the national security requests they have received.

Last week, several major tech companies denied that they had granted the FBI and NSA "direct access" to their users' personal data, after former defense contractor Edward Snowden leaked some of the details of PRISM to the Guardian and Washington Post. Drummond writes that publishing more details of the information requests the company received from such agencies "would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made."

“I think it’s fantastic that Google is reaching out to the government and requesting this information, and trying as hard as it can to be transparent," Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) staff technologist Dan Auerbach told msnbc. "And it’s really a shame that the FISA court is set up to be so secretive that one can’t give these sort of general aggregate statistics that would give people a sense of the scope of information that’s being collected.”

EFF has been requesting that Google release more information about FISA court orders since at least March of this year.

While Verizon does not appear to have granted the Justice Department "direct access" to customers' information, another recent leak shows that the telecom company received a secret court order demanding that it turn over all of its customers' records to the NSA. Last Friday, Drummond and Google CEO Larry Page said their company was not "disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity" on the same scale as Verizon.