Transparency Please

[crossposted from]

Today, we have joined a large and diverse group of companies, non-profits and consumer advocates in an open letter urging the US government to allow internet and telecom companies to freely report statistics on government surveillance requests.

As we've discussed before, standing up for your users is a feature. As we all move more and more of our lives online and into our phones, the data we are producing — and sharing, whether we know it or not — is growing exponentially. The extent to which we can trust the services we use to steward our data appropriately is a matter of global economic importance.

At the same time, our understanding and expectations of privacy are changing quickly. We are using network analysis to solve problems on every front — whether that's finding a cure for cancer, selling products more effectively, managing our energy consumption, or fighting crime. In every case, that means looking for patterns and connections in the vast quantities of data we produce. Our colleague Albert has argued repeatedly that we as a society need to be having an open discussion about the risks and merits of network analysis, and the tradeoffs we're willing to make in terms of privacy, innovation and security.

One thing that's clear is that we can't have that conversation in the context of vast, secret, unaccountable and unchecked surveillance programs. Rather, we need to bring more transparency and more data to the discussion.

We can start to do this by being open about the extent of data sharing between internet companies and governments. Google pioneered this approach in 2010 with their Transparency Report, and Twitter has done the same since 2012. However, it has become clear over the past month that even when a transparent relationship with their users about the use of user data is an important brand promise, companies are prevented by the government from delivering on that promise when confronted by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests and National Security Letters.

Today's letter requests that internet and telecom companies be allowed to freely publish data about the volume and character of the government surveillance requests they receive. This is a small, but reasonable and necessary step towards increasing the public dialogue around privacy, surveillance, and network analysis.

To sign on to the public petition for transparency around internet surveillance, visit



Comments (Archived):

  1. Paranoid

    It’s pathetic that I feel the need to support you…..anonymously.

    1. Also, paranoid

      Thanks Fred. This is THE “issue” to rally around. Those of us who are fortunate enough to afford counsel, please lead this charge.

    2. ShanaC


  2. kidmercury

    this is a nice step on the road that inevitably leads to non-violent revolution, though a petition from the people is not going to do anything. they know you don’t want this and are doing it anyway. they’ve also been doing it for years. project echelon, the ATT scandal from 2006, and lots more stuff that is done through the private sector but with the tacit blessing of the intelligence agencies.the next step is for people to realize the government/power structure is going to do this whether or not you like it. then what is the response? technologically, eventually private organizations will need to build their own internet, taking the spectrum they want, routing across points they trust, and even developing their own domain name system independent of ICANN. this path of course seems too far-fetched and too radical — at least until we consider the alternative.

  3. JimHirshfield

    Agree with this wholeheartedly.But I am deflated by the thought that trust is gone. No matter what change the government makes, the genie is out of the bottle; they know how to access everything. And I’m afraid that we will always wonder if there’s a clandestine group somewhere that’s spying on us, having justified their actions based on “creative” interpretations of the law.

    1. Anne Libby

      Yes. Along with “deflated,” the word “heartbroken” feels right to me.(Though I do feel a little bit heartened about this:

      1. JimHirshfield


    2. ShanaC

      i don’t know why we didn’t assume before.While I’m angry, my day to day has not changed, if only because I don’t think I am of interest to the government.

    3. SubstrateUndertow

      Trust is not so mucha “genie” that is out of the bottle as a process that has been allowed to decay over timeby a complacent citizenry spoiled on comfort and conveniencesorry just nitpicking over semantics here 🙂

      1. JLM

        .Your nitpick is very well played.The NSA is finishing up a 1MM SF facility in Utah which is the culmination of their designs to intercept and catalog and store everything they can get their hands on — it did not happen overnight.One has to ask oneself — why does the NSA need 1MM SF of Cray computers, storage?JLM.

  4. William Mougayar

    I admire how the US people react to crisis like that, fighting with words and counter-opinions.In Canada, we’re often too silent and not vocal enough, certainly not in unison like that, when it’s time to face disagreements with our government. In some other parts of the world, they would have taken to the streets, burned tires or smashed windows. In other parts of the global, people are paralyzed for public action, and they would be jailed for voicing dissent.

    1. pointsnfigures

      They (Obama administration) jailed a film maker when it was convenient for them prior to the election. (Benghazi). He isn’t out yet. It’s been shown his film was a convenient excuse.The IRS deliberately attacked groups that were against the administration in an effort to silence them. They released the tax returns of political candidates contrary to the administration to opponents.The current administration holds secret closed meetings with members of the press that will carry their water for them (kinda like Pravda).Yes, we need more transparency to protect ourselves from big government.

    2. kidmercury

      don’t worry, the US is a cowardly bunch also, just mention 9/11 being an inside job and watch them wet their diapers and despise you for reminding them of the self-evident truth.

      1. pointsnfigures

        9/11 was not an inside job……and Bush didn’t bomb bunkers in Louisiana during Katrina to kill black people.

        1. kidmercury

          there’s never been a criminal investigation of 9/11.the science clearly shows a controlled demolition of WTC 7 which was not hit by a plane. introducing irrelevant points about katrina and bush only illustrates you don’t have science to support your viewpoints.

          1. JLM

            .I love a good rant and I love a good “kidmercury” rant more than any other kind.As a structural engineer and an experienced demo guy, I have reviewed all the mojo about WTC 7 being a controlled explosion. None of it makes any structural or explosive sense.I was very interested in the subject because every structural engineer ever has studied the WTC structural system. I read on it extensively and even if one conceded the entire body of conjecture at its worst interpretation, it is still impossible to conclude that it was a controlled explosion.An explosive scheme of that type would have required unfettered access to structural members and enough time to lay it out and put it in place that is simply not plausible.JLM.

          2. kidmercury

            bomb sniffing dogs were removed prior to WTC 7 collapse. WTC 7 is not mentioned in the 9/11 commission report. thermate, a chemical found in explosives, was found on the debris. much of the debris was destroyed, an illegal act in violation of fire laws. peer-reviewed science journals linked to above go through the physics, chemicals, and much more.and of course, if it wasn’t explosives, then what was it? building 7 was not hit by a a reminder there has not been a criminal investigation of 9/11. just two wars still going on.

          3. pointsnfigures

            @kidmercury:disqus you are way off base on 9/11. I think you would be better off figuring out who killed Kennedy. I am sure Pearl Harbor was an inside job as well.

          4. kidmercury

            All you are doing is telling me I am wrong without engaging in an intellectual discussion. You seem to.have great conviction in your beliefs; if your conviction is so great presumably you have ample evidence to support it. Why not share it?As for the other issues you raise, the CIA is the organization primarily responsible for killing the Kennedy brothers. Pearl harbor was of course allowed to happen, as any student of american history knows.

          5. pointsnfigures

            I think that there is intellectual discussion, and then there is intellectual discussion. 9/11 was not caused, or propagated in the US govt. There are muslim terrorists that want to destroy our society. They also hate us because we support Israel. Muslim terrorists conceived of the plot, and executed it, killing 3000 innocent Americans.Pearl Harbor wasn’t allowed to “happen”. But, they don’t actually teach real US history in school anymore.

          6. kidmercury

            well, at this point, i’ve linked to government officials, architects and engineers, and peer-reviewed science journals supporting the inside job viewpoint on 9/11. you’ve only stated your opinion — there is no evidence radical muslims operating from caves in afghanistan committed 9/11 — and acted as though this opinion is infallible, in spite of a complete lack of evidence. this is the mentality that most people operate from, so it is nothing new, though i believe the economic, political, and cultural problems stem directly from this for pearl harbor, the mccollum memo clearly illustrates advance knowledge of an attack from japan, and how war with japan could be deemed as advantageous.we do agree that they don’t teach real US history in schools.

  5. JLM

    .I will go with the under on this subject.The real issue is not just the notion that the government wants to know some information. They may have perfectly ordinary and plausible requirements to obtain that information.Hell, that’s just the government exercising its duty to enforce rules and laws. Digital information is subject to subpoena just the same way that phone records and bank accounts are subject to subpoena in a garden variety organized crime criminal investigation.To breach that secrecy is silly. If the FBI is investigating a securities fraud because they received a criminal referral from the SEC, I want them to be able to proceed in secrecy and the provider of the information really has no legal interest, duty or right to filter or otherwise interfere with a criminal investigation.The real problem is this — we do not trust the government. I do not trust the big tech companies.Take the IRS as an example. Clearly they have violated every norm of trust and decency and have become a political arm of the Democratic party. It is really sad for both of them. When your public servants are taking the Fifth Amendment at Congressional hearings, something is terribly wrong.The drip, drip, drip of the IRS scandal has been obscured by all things Trayvon-Zimmerman but just yesterday the IRS officially revealed that the tax returns of Christine O’Donnell — she of the Republican/Tea Party candidacy to be seated in the former Joe Biden Senate seat from MBNA (oops, inside politics joke, Delaware really) — had her tax returns purloined by a Delaware official on the day of her announcement. To this day, nobody has been disciplined.Microsoft announced that it had helped the NSA break the encryption that it was selling to you and me. That’s pretty damn cheesy.So, for me, I do not trust either the government or the Digital Illuminati. A pox on both of their houses.Let me also caution — we do not know 1% of what is going on here. The government is engaged in enormously complex and secret operations which are bound hand and foot with private industry.An example is the Federal Witness Protection Program which has enlisted industry to provide the entire operational framework for the program since its inception. You never hear about that because it is……………………………………..secret.Witness also the entire bitcoin industry. Do you think that it is not riddled with DEA involvement? Haha, well, yes it is.JLM.

    1. pointsnfigures

      Can I get an amen?

      1. JimHirshfield


    2. gorbachev

      The reason we don’t trust the Government is because it no longer acts according to the values Americans still pretend are the values the US stands for (liberty and justice for all, for one).The US Constitution has become nothing more than a piece of paper to be crumbled up and tossed aside when convenience or corporate profits demands it.The violent suppression of civil disobedience of any kind (OWS, Aaron Swartz to name two) in a country that was founded by civil disobedience?The hypocritical preaching of US leaders abroad about spread of democracy and freedom from oppressive Governments is just the icing on the cake.PS. The IRS “scandal” was completely manufactured, and if you had actually followed the news on it, it has been revealed that the IRS investigated “left” and “right” leaning organizations equally.

      1. Dave Pinsen

        “The US Constitution has become nothing more than a piece of paper to be crumbled up and tossed aside when convenience or corporate profits demands it.”Actually, it was pretty crumpled by the end of FDR’s 4 terms, and he wasn’t motivated by a zeal for corporate profits.”The violent suppression of civil disobedience of any kind (OWS, Aaron Swartz to name two) in a country that was founded by civil disobedience?”Civil disobedience means violating the law but accepting the punishment of the state. Think Thoreau going to jail rather than paying taxes in protest of the Mexican American War. Swartz violated the law but didn’t accept the (admittedly, harsh) punishment of the state. The United States was founded by armed revolt, not civil disobedience.

        1. pointsnfigures

          Or Martin Luther King. Problem today is the civil disobedience I see isn’t to change laws for the benefit of everyone-but to advance an agenda. OWS had an agenda-and that agenda was counter to the founding principles of the US.

        2. JLM

          .You make a great point.The American Revolution was NOT civil disobedience, it was armed revolt in which powerful and comfortable folks risked everything and rose in armed rebellin against the most powerful government, army and navy in the world.The fact that the Colonies won and threw off the yoke of King George continues to be one of the the greatest miracles in the history of mankind.The fact that they did it for a number of ideas which rejected the vassal state fealty to a King and brought forth a government for, of and by the people is a further miracle.The notion that everyone is equal regardless of their station is life is almost divine intervention.The fact that it has lasted for over 200 years is further proof of its power.JLM.

      2. JLM

        .Your dripping cynicism is not my style though I do agree with a bit of what you say as it relates to values and preaching — these are temporary impacts created by the current leadership at any given point in time.America embraces the values and proselytizing of its leadership. The hand on the tiller determines the direction of things and when the direction is perceived as not being good, then the leadership is changed.This is seen most clearly in Congressional elections rather than Presidential elections because of the peculiarities of the Electoral College.America, flaws and all, continues to be the best hope for mankind. Still the flaws merit more than a bit of housekeeping.The notion that OWS was civil disobedience when it was unable to articulate a clear vision of its objectives is sheer nonsense. I never saw anything as comical as the interviews in NYC of the unwashed OWS folks trying to explain their “movement”. Laughable.As to Aaron Swartz — a tragedy — he was a star in creating Internet transparency and I support each and every initiative that he launched. Every one of them. But he checked out by committing suicide just when his trial might have moved the needle a bit. A tragedy but not very good politics or change.One aside — there is no more heartless confrontation between good and evil than the Internet v a US Attorney. The Federal laws are immutable and overwhelming. It is not a venue for change.As to the IRS, I am going to have to send you for a checkup. There has never been a more blatant example of abuse than this. Your notion that left and right leaning organizations were treated equally is sheer bullshit. There were in excess of 300 Tea Party/Patriot organizations and only 6 leftist organizations and 4 of the leftist leaning organizations were focused on causes involving Israel. You are simply wrong on this issue.Remember this — folks from the IRS are members of the NTEU, a leftist leaning trade union and some of them invoked their Fifth Amendment rights. The 5th is only pertinent in the face of criminal wrongdoing, not because questions are “awkward” or “uncomfortable” but because the answers are likely to lead to facts which could result in criminal charges being levied against the witness.The “two dweebs in Cleveland” explanation by the administration highlights the magnitude of the wrongdoing — the WH was prepared to allow a blatant and nonsensical lie to be floated as an explanation. This is desperate conduct equal to the Benghazi lie.We know less than 1% of what has happened at the IRS.JLM.

  6. Dave Pinsen

    Not sure if anyone here has watched that new Showtime series Ray Donovan, but I was thinking about this surveillance stuff while watching the first episode on DVR on Sunday. I’m guessing it must have been written way before the Snowden leaks. The title character plays some kind of Hollywood fixer, and in the series premier, one of his clients wakes up in bed with a dead woman in his hotel room. So the fixer starts telling calling his colleagues about this dead body on his cell phone. Would have seemed a little indiscreet even before the NSA revelations, but now it seems wildly implausible that someone would chat so freely about that kind of thing on a cell phone.

  7. jason wright

    why would companies introduce the transparency report knowing that they were being prevented from disclosing the true nature of their relationship with GOV?

    1. Nick Grossman

      it seems that the answer to that is that the folks producing the transparency report did not know about the data sharing under FISA and NSL.

      1. Nick Grossman

        in other words, the it seems that the secrecy provisions of the FISA requests and NSLs apply internally as well as externally.

  8. Adrian Bye

    great. the US needs to be more transparent given its role in the domain name system.

  9. andyidsinga

    it makes good business sense as in the case where with free services the user == product, this becomes “standing up for your product is a feature”.

  10. kenberger

    not related to this post, but comments are closed for your old “what would I do with a drone?” post, and you started by saying you wanted dry cleaning runs.well now someone’s actually doing it, for real (in Philly). I don’t expect it can last:

  11. LaVonne Reimer

    I’m fixated on busting open the black box of credit bureaus but endorsing this initiative and thanking you for the post. Any conversation, any conversation at all that puts big data and network analysis on the table in the context of the value of transparency is all, all to the good.

  12. howardlindzon

    I think we need to define transparency in the era of ‘big data’.Twitter says they dont sell the data, but they do sell the firehose for resale to gnip, datasift, dataminr…so lets say the government is getting the data through the channel and not from the top. is that not the same thing just cloaked ?is anyone innocent of selling to the government in this era?

    1. kidmercury

      twitter is selling publicly available tweets, which is different than selling personally identifiable information (i.e. IP addresses, email addresses).

      1. howardlindzon

        yes different but so much easier to drill down on people that may be just plain dumb like me 🙂

  13. Tom Labus

    I doesn’t matter if you sign this petition or any other.No administration is going to risk the wrath of voters if they let someone unleash an attack on the US, here.I would also like to see the tenor of this argument if the WH was held by the Republicans. Much of the screeching is political, I believe.,

    1. Nathan Lustig

      I think the tenor of the argument if the White House were held by republicans would be much worse. Obama has been the worst president for civil liberties because he’s followed the same policies as Bush (and probably any other republican who could have won), but the left is mostly silent on the abuses because their guy is in office.Just like the left’s antiwar protests mostly stopped when Obama got into office.

  14. JLM

    .The entire nonsense of the FISA and NSL authorizations for spying on things is pure baloney.Today the NSA finally admitted what has been suspected for a long, long, long time by anyone who has been around these type of folks.THE INVISIBLE HAND OF THE NSA TRULY KNOWS NO BOUNDARIESYou cannot restrict folks who break laws for a living and to whom you have given unlimited technology and storage and resources. In many ways Edward Snowden is a symptom of this problem. This dweeb was exposed to the most secret of secrets and nobody was watching the watchers. This watcher stole the Crown Jewels.The NSA admits that the entire Internet only has 4.74 degrees of separation. This is the old Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of separation joke. The NSA is not joking. We are all separated by, on average, no more than 4.74 persons.When this all started the government wanted the permission to look at a specific terrorist suspect phone number and to run down that set of contacts. They agreed to “one hop” — the number and everybody in that contact pool.Today the government revealed that it is, in fact, looking at a “three hopper” at a minimum. OK, what does that mean.Say, you have your phone and 100 contacts. Hop #1.Each of your contacts has 100 contacts. Hop #2.Each of those contacts has 100 contacts. Hop #3.100 x 100 x 100 = 1,000,000 phone numbers the NSA now admits to tracking given ONE terrorist suspect.How about if you have 1,000 contacts — plenty of folks do.1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 = 1,000,000,000 — yes that’s a billion folksThe NSA is now admitting to looking at a “3 hopper” — and I don’t believe them. They admit that the whole damn Internet is only a 4.74 hopper.I don’t believe there is any real limitation to what the NSA is looking on a routine basis.Given the math above, how could there be?If you had 300 terrorist suspects, you would arithmetically have the entire US population in your net. Not practically, arithmetically.If you had 300 terrorists and had 1,000 contacts as your sweep standard, you would have the entire freakin’ world at your fingertips.Do you believe that the NSA is telling the truth when they first indicated they had a “one hopper” and then subsequentially a “two hopper” and today a “three hopper”.They are just managing and manipulating the flow of the shit. Just like the IRS.Read about it here.http://www.theatlanticwire….I don’t trust these guys.JLM.

  15. jonconnors

    I feel that once we open this data up (10 or a 100 years from now, it must happen) mankind will be able to reach mass enlightenment. Network analysis brings consciousness. Good place to put pressure, as it is needed.