Apple joins Google and others supporting call for NSA and FBI transparency

NSA slide (Apple 1984)

Apple has joined with a number of other technology firms, including Google and Microsoft, supporting legislation in the U.S. House and Senate loosening restrictions on divulging national security requests. A letter from the Center for Democracy and Technology asks Congress to approve two bills aimed at letting tech companies reveal how many national security requests they receive.

The iPhone maker has publicly denied assisting NSA’s PRISM program for tracking Internet use, but is unable to be more transparent with concerned customers. Along with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo are also suing the government, charging the restrictions on disclosure violate their right to free speech…

“Such transparency is important not only for the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of that surveillance, but also for international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about privacy and security,” the CDT letter states. The signers of the letter hope to “achieve passage of legislation that will ensure the level of transparency necessary to appropriately inform the American public and preserve the trust of Internet users around the world.”

The letter, delivered to the U.S. Senate and House Judicial Committees, supports the “Surveillance Order Reporting Act of 2013” proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) “Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013.” (You may recall Franken recently challenged Apple’s new Touch ID fingerprint reader on privacy grounds.) Both bills would change the current disclosure agreement, which lets companies disclose government requests in groups of 1,000.

“While companies are asking for the right to publish nearly exact numbers of requests, neither of these bills goes that far,” notes The Verge. The House version would allow companies to publish requests in groups of 100 while the Senate option set no limit, but requires that companies not disclose requests fewer than 500.

The letter comes as the U.S. Justice Department is expected to use the secretive FISA court to oppose any attempt by companies claiming disclosing such requests is within their First Amendment rights.

In June, Apple posted an open letter defending its dealings with the NSA. The letter, titled “Apple’s Commitment to Customer Privacy,” denied allegations it knew about the PRISM program and attempted to shed light on how many national security letters the Cupertino, Calif. company received.

“From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for customer data. Between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices were specified in those requests, which came from federal, state and local authorities and included both criminal investigations and national security matters,” Apple said.

Since that time, further revelations about NSA surveillance of internet traffic included slides which likened Steve Jobs to Big Brother and Apple users to zombies. Other press reports uncovered how the snooping program could trace virtually any conversation.

It is unclear whether the two bills will make it out of their respective House and Senate committees. Democrat Lofgren’s attempt faces a Republican-led House while Franken’s legislation may languish as Congress deals with other matters, such as funding the U.S. government.