Google has announced that its bi-annual transparency report will now include data requested through FBI National Security Letters (NSLs).
NSLs are confidential consumer information requests sent out by the FBI to internet and telecommunication service companies. Google's updated transparency policy attempts to shed some light on letters by offering augmented information on the communications.
"We've been trying to find a way to provide more information about the NSLs we get - particularly as people have voiced concerns about the increase in their use since 9/11," wrote Google's legal director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado in a blog post.
"Starting [now], we're now including data about NSLs in our Transparency Report. We're thankful to US government officials for working with us to provide greater insight into the use of NSLs."
NSLs are confidential FBI letters which push private companies into releasing a consumer's digital information. The information a company would be forced to disclose through a NSL includes a user's name, address, and service details.
The letters are unique from traditional data requests as they don't require a court order. FBI officials are allowed to use their own discretion in issuing NSLs. Oversights for the letters are performed through routine audits by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).
Letters are primarily used in cases of national security and can be used in potential terrorist or governmental espionage cases.
Prior to the creation of the Patriot Act, NSLs did not extend to possible terrorist-related cases. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the use of NSLs has increased dramatically since the Patriot Act extended its eligible use cases.
NSLs are required to be kept confidential between the FBI and the firm who receives them. In certain cases, even the person who the NSL is ordered against may not be informed they are being sought out by the FBI.
Google is attempting to circumvent disclosure issues by offering a partial release of NSL information. The search giant has released a ballpark figure of the number of NSLs it has received in each of the last four years.
According to the transparency report, Google received no more than 999 NSLs in each of the last four years. In 2009, 2011, and 2012 Google received orders for data on 1,000 to 1,999 user accounts. However, in 2010 that number jumped above the 2,000 user account threshold.
Google's numbers are purposefully vague as to comply with government regulations. The tech giant said it was required to follow the lead of the DOJ who feared exact NSL figures could disclose information about ongoing investigations.
This isn't the first time NSLs have made headlines in the technology community. In 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported that the FBI had been abusing the use of NSLs for the past several years.
The EFF's abuse claims were backed up by a 2006 review of NSL usage performed by the DOJ. According to the 2006 report, many NSLs were not properly vetted prior to being sent out.
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