Freed by deal with government, Internet firms release new data on NSA surveillance requests

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WASHINGTON – Freed by a recent legal deal with government lawyers, major technology firms released new data Monday on how often they are ordered to turn over customer information for secret national security investigations — figures that show that the government collected data on thousands of Americans.

The details disclosed by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr provided expanded details from 2012 and 2013 showing how often the government has sought information on the firms’ customers in counter-terrorism and other intelligence-related probes. The companies provided limited information in the past about government requests for data, but a new agreement reached last week with the Obama administration allowed a broadened, though still circumscribed, set of figures to be made public.

Seeking to reassure customers and business partners alarmed by revelations about the government’s massive collection of Internet and computer data, the firms stressed details indicating that only small numbers of their customers were targeted by authorities. Still, even those small numbers showed that thousands of Americans were affected by the government requests approved by judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The data releases by the five major tech firms offered a mix of dispassionate graphics, reassurances and protests, seeking to alleviate customer concerns about government spying while pressuring national security officials about the companies’ constitutional concerns. The shifting tone in the releases showed the precarious course that major tech firms have had to navigate in recent months, caught between their public commitments to Internet freedom and their enforced roles as data providers to U.S. spy agencies.

In a company blog post, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith scolded the U.S. and allied governments for failing to renounce the reported mass interception of Internet data carried by communications cables. Top lawyers and executives for major tech firms had previously raised alarms about media reports describing that hacking by U.S. and UK spy agencies and cited them during conversations with U.S. officials during President Barack Obama’s internal review of planned changes to the government’s spying operations.

“Despite the president’s reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies,” Smith said in a Microsoft blog release. Smith added that Microsoft planned to press the government “for more on this point, in collaboration with others across our industry.”

The figures released Monday came just a week after major tech firms announced a legal agreement with the Justice Department that provided for a limited, but broadened ability to tell the public about government information requests. But lawyers and executive for the companies openly vented their discomfort with the government’s continuing insistence that they could only provide broad ranges instead of the actual numbers of government requests.

The companies said they would press for narrower data ranges that would offer more details. “We will also continue to advocate for still narrower disclosure ranges, which will provide a more accurate picture of the number of national security-related requests,” said Erika Rottenberg, LinkedIn’s general counsel.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the companies’ releases and comments. The spokesman pointed to a late January statement by DNI James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder that said the agreement would allow the firms to “disclose more information than ever before to their customers.”

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Liedtke reported from San Francisco.

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