Secret Gov’t Data Requests Secret No More

It appears as though some of the world’s leading tech companies—Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook among them—will soon begin notifying users if government agencies request information about said users.

Surveillance Scandals Weigh Heavy

The change in policy means these companies will tell users any time their data is being seized (unless they’ve been legally blocked from doing so beforehand). This gives users time to formally challenge these requests in court; however, prosecutors say the new policy may undermine their cases by giving criminals the opportunity to destroy evidence.

NSA

Outwardly, this looks like a move by the tech industry to distance itself from recent surveillance scandals. Reports show that users and companies alike are becoming more and more concerned about government data collection after 2013’s Edward Snowden/NSA revelations.

Policy Changes & the EFF Report

Google already has a user-notification policy in place, which was updated earlier this week. Exemptions are included for criminal activity or “imminent harm.” Google’s new Transparency Report states, in part, “We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order.”

Apple’s policy updates will take effect later this month. Facebook and Microsoft are also working to update their policies in the near future. Twitter has long had a user-notification policy in place, and has routinely alerted users about data collection.

These policy changes are likely intended to take effect ahead of the publication of the latest annual report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an influential online rights group. The EFF report ranks companies based on privacy and transparency policies. Past reports have prompted reviews of and changes to these policies by numerous tech companies.

Some Requests Still Secret

By law, data requests from the FBI or the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will remain secret. No amount of policy changes will allow tech companies to report these requests to users.

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Photo credit: marsmet549 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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