Microsoft this afternoon joined several other high-tech companies in urging the U.S. government to permit more transparency on some of the national security requests it makes of tech companies.
The move came after reports broke last week in The Guardian and The Washington Post about a U.S. government surveillance program code-named PRISM, which targets primarily foreigners. It allows the U.S. government access to user information from computer servers of Microsoft and eight other technology companies.
“Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues,” the company said in a statement.
Microsoft was referring to orders issued by the government under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The tech companies are not allowed to disclose the number or scope of FISA orders it gets, or even, according to The New York Times, to acknowledge that those orders exist.
In its statement today, Microsoft also said that, in a report it had released earlier this year on law enforcement requests it received in 2012, the company “went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency.”
The report, which does not include FISA data, said that Microsoft received 75,378 law-enforcement requests in 2012 that potentially affected 137,424 accounts — about 0.02 percent of active users of Microsoft services.
Excluding Skype, Microsoft received 70,665 requests, of which nearly 80 percent resulted in the disclosure of non-content data, such as the user’s name, billing address or IP history. About 2 percent resulted in the disclosure of customer content, Microsoft said.
The company said it requires an official document-based request, such as a subpoena, before it will consider disclosing non-content data, and that it requires an order or warrant from law enforcement before disclosing content.
The company also disclosed very rough estimates of the number of National Security Letters served on Microsoft: from 0 to 999 in 2012. Those letters, authorized by senior FBI officials, are used to obtain information about individuals if it’s relevant to to anti-terrorism or intelligence activities.
Microsoft was limited by the government to that method of describing the number of National Security Letters it was served.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a posting last Friday that “we strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe.”