How Transparent are these Transparency Reports? - Transparency Week


By Molly Freeman

Cover slide of PRISM presentation from the NSA. Image courtesy of the National Security Agency.

It isn’t news that companies like Twitter and Google have released transparency reports in the past in efforts to appear genuine and honest with their consumers. However, since Edward Snowden leaked information on the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, Google, Twitter, and others, have admitted that their transparency reports were incomplete.

Though The Guardian first broke the story, the media has tirelessly covered the discovery and fallout of the NSA’s PRISM program, which allegedly allowed the U.S. government unregulated access to user data through tech companies including Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Apple. The news of PRISM was met with outrage from the public, especially on social media platforms.

In light of the information uncovered from the NSA, companies accused of allowing the PRISM program through the back doors of their servers are rushing to upkeep their reputations and dispute their alleged complicity in this privacy infringement.

According to The Guardian, “Internal NSA documents state that Prism involves ‘collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple’.” However, Facebook, Google and others have since claimed they never heard of PRISM.

On June 17, Yahoo released some data about the number of government requests they received in the past six months. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, also said the company will release its first global law enforcement transparency report later this summer.

Many other companies named by The Guardian have also released statements asking permission from the U.S. government to fully disclose the number of requests they receive and how many with which they comply. Twitter and Google both put out reports earlier this year, which indicate that the number of requests from the government have increased in recent years.

However, those instances reported did not include requests covered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, because companies are not allowed to disclose the number of FISA requests or how many with which their company complied. In Mayer’s statement, she claimed that Yahoo had received between 12,000 and 13,000 requests for user data from December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013. These numbers include criminal, FISA, and other requests.

Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have all released statements asking the Department of Justice for permission to disclose FISA requests to the public. David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer of Google, also sent a letter to the offices of the Attorney General and the FBI that was published on the company’s official blog.

According to Drummond, Google did not hold back the information because the company has nothing to hide. “Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” Drummond wrote.

Microsoft followed suit and sent a statement to Reuters, in which they asked for permission to fully disclose government requests, saying that their recent report “went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency.”

In Facebook’s statement, the social media company said all governments should be transparent in the manner in which they keep their public safe. “In the past, we have questioned the value of releasing a transparency report that, because of exactly these types of government restrictions on disclosure, is necessarily incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to users,” wrote Ted Ullyot, Facebook General Counsel.

But how seriously can the public take these efforts of the tech giants named by The Guardian? Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times that these companies are just trying to save face.

“If nothing else happens, this is a way of putting the government on the defensive and shifting the blame from the companies to the government,” Soghoian said.

According to a report published on June 11 by Transparency International, Microsoft, Google, and Apple are among the least transparent companies in a survey of 105 publicly traded multinationals. Transparency International scores each of the customers on a scale of 0-10 for Transparency in Corporate Reporting, which “assesses the disclosure of steps these companies have in place to fight corruption.”

Microsoft scored a 3.4, Apple a 3.2, and Google a 2.9. Although these numbers include other factors in addition to disclosure of government requests on user data, they do not create more trust between the tech giants and their customers.

As for the government, a new poll from ABC News and The Washington Post found that most Americans are still okay with NSA spying programs, even since PRISM came to light.

In a breakdown of 58-39 percent, the overall public supports the NSA collecting “extensive records of phone calls, as well as internet data related to specific investigations, to try to identify possible terrorist threats.” Support is even higher among Democrats: 73-24 percent.

Despite the initial outrage following the news of PRISM’s existence, it seems the public doesn’t really know what it wants. Google and Twitter are applauded for releasing transparency reports and for seeming to make efforts towards full disclosure, but up against other companies in Transparency International’s report, they don’t appear nearly as forthcoming.

Whether or not fallout from the NSA scandal will actually lead to more transparency on a corporate level will likely play out over the next political cycle. However, if nothing else, the revelations have showed users that they take transparency reports with a grain of salt.