Transparency in Government Surveillance

Today, we have joined a large and diverse group of companies, non-profits and consumer advocates in an open letter urging the US government to allow internet and telecom companies to freely report statistics on government surveillance requests.

As we’ve discussed before, standing up for your users is a feature. As we all move more and more of our lives online and into our phones, the data we are producing — and sharing, whether we know it or not — is growing exponentially. The extent to which we can trust the services we use to steward our data appropriately is a matter of global economic importance.

At the same time, our understanding and expectations of privacy are changing quickly. We are using network analysis to solve problems on every front — whether that’s finding a cure for cancer, selling products more effectively, managing our energy consumption, or fighting crime. In every case, that means looking for patterns and connections in the vast quantities of data we produce. Our colleague Albert has argued repeatedly that we as a society need to be having an open discussion about the risks and merits of network analysis, and the tradeoffs we’re willing to make in terms of privacy, innovation and security.

One thing that’s clear is that we can’t have that conversation in the context of vast, secret, unaccountable and unchecked surveillance programs. Rather, we need to bring more transparency and more data to the discussion.

We can start to do this by being open about the extent of data sharing between internet companies and governments. Google pioneered this approach in 2010 with their Transparency Report, and Twitter has done the same since 2012. However, it has become clear over the past month that even when a transparent relationship with their users about the use of user data is an important brand promise, companies are prevented by the government from delivering on that promise when confronted by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests and National Security Letters.

Today’s letter requests that internet and telecom companies be allowed to freely publish data about the volume and character of the government surveillance requests they receive. This is a small, but reasonable and necessary step towards increasing the public dialogue around privacy, surveillance, and network analysis.

To sign on to the public petition for transparency around internet surveillance, visit