The general counsel of a U.S. spying agency told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday that if Internet companies provide information about the number of surveillance orders they receive for user data, it would alert the country's adversaries on which services to avoid.
The government defended its data collection and disclosure policies even as a representative from Google warned the senators that U.S. surveillance practices could lead to the break up of the Internet.
"Providing that information in that level of detail could provide our adversaries a detailed road map of which providers and which platforms to avoid in order to escape surveillance," said Robert Litt, general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, in a prepared statement in connection with the Senate hearing on "The Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013."
The proposed legislation aims to bring greater transparency in data collection by the National Security Agency.
Internet companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn have asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow them to publish aggregate data about any orders or directives they have received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and related statutes.
The companies are trying to counter adverse publicity from disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that suggest that some Internet companies provide real-time access to user content on their servers to the NSA, which the companies have denied. The companies are currently allowed to reveal the number of surveillance requests only if they lump them together with other requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Litt's statement, however, indicated that the government is not willing to give much ground on the secrecy surrounding its data collection, which according to documents released by Snowden and the government includes bulk collection of phone metadata and user content on the Internet.
While it is "possible and appropriate" to provide information on targets of surveillance, "counting the number of persons or of U.S. persons whose communications are actually collected, even if they're not the targets, is operationally very difficult, at least without an extraordinary investment of resources and maybe not even then," according to the government statement.
It's not possible, for example, to determine whether a person who receives an email is a U.S. person, as the email address does not reveal anything about the citizenship or nationality of the person, it said. In cases where it is possible to get information that would help to determine if the person is from the U.S., the research required would "perversely require a greater invasion of that person's privacy than would otherwise occur."
In line with the stand adopted by U.S. Internet companies recently, Google called at the hearing for broader reforms "with the goal of ensuring that government surveillance programs are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight." The Internet companies had earlier focused primarily on getting permission to release the information on user data requests from the government.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.