In its latest transparency report published this week, Google began sharing very general data about the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives from the FBI or other government agencies seeking non-content transactional data in relation to national security investigations. Usually the government prohibits companies from discussing or disclosing information about NSLs, but apparently Google and the government reached an agreement permitting Google to publish this summary data:
Shane Harris writes about this on his Dead Drop blog and concludes:
The numbers Google is reporting are broad. But the big takeaway here is that the FBI–the primary user of national security letters–appears to be interested not so much in the content of a person’s email, but rather in what’s known as “basic subscriber information,” more high-level data such as a person’s name, address, and the length of service on his account. This information is potentially more useful, and surely easier to get, than the written contents of an e-mail.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been very critical of NSL authorities and is challenging them in court, notes on its blog: “While we continue to be in the dark about the full extent of how the law is being applied, this new data allays fears that NSLs are being used for sweeping access to large numbers of user accounts–at Google, at least.” EFF calls on other companies to publish similar data.