Google contests US gag order as Gmail users freaked by US spying

New York: Google asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Tuesday to ease gag orders over data requests it makes, in the latest move by the California search giant to protect its reputation in the aftermath of revelations about the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance of Internet traffic.

Google, one of nine US companies named in NSA documents as providing information to the PRISM spy program, is trying to reassure Gmail users that their privacy is being protected from unwarranted intrusions. Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo that handle sensitive personal data are worried the relentless media coverage will erode public confidence, making people feel less comfortable sending personal emails and sharing photos. That could put a serious crimp in their business.

In addition to forcing them to engage in the PRISM program, the NSA limits disclosures about their involvement, making it difficult for these companies to defend their reputations. Google is trying to change that through a legal filing on Tuesday citing the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

 Google contests US gag order as Gmail users freaked by US spying

Google frets that media reports of NSA surveillance of Gmail users could kill its business. AP

In the petition, Google is seeking permission to publish the total numbers of requests that Google receives under the foreign intelligence securities act (Fisa) and the numbers of user accounts they affect. FISA requests are largely targeted at people living outside the US.

“Greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately,” Google said in a statement.

The PRISM revelations could cost US companies some business overseas. Individuals and corporate users in India, Europe and the rest of the world are rattled by revelations that using US online services could subject them to eavesdropping by American intelligence services.

“There’s a big difference between a national security investigation into a foreign individual who poses a terrorist threat to the US, and foreign individuals or corporations being spied on because they happen to use an e-mail service that runs through California,” Emma Carr, deputy director of Big Brother Watch, a British privacy group, told The New York Times.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who revealed that US spy programs track phone and Internet messages around the world in the hope of preventing terrorist attacks, dealt a blow to Silicon Valley by vowing to release more details on the NSA's "direct access" to American tech companies' servers.

"Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped," Snowden wrote during a live chat on the Guardian’s website, while adding that the US government "is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me."

Snowden, who is believed to be hiding in Hong Kong, said Google, Facebook and other US tech companies had been "misleading" in their denials about the size and scope of Washington’s spy program.

"They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply them from ethical obligation," he said. "If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?"

Larry Popelka, founder and chief executive officer of GameChanger, an innovation consulting firm, wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek that customers might turn elsewhere.

“International competitors of Google and Facebook — which have generally been far behind them in technology and user acquisition — will surely try to paint them as pawns of the “Big Brother” US government,” Popelka wrote in the magazine.

He suggested that some competitors like Sina and Baidu in China; Yandex in Russia; Foundem, Badoo, and Twenga in Europe; and Mixi and Mobage in Japan would gain from the NSA spying flap.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told Spanish tech news site FayerWayer that when he was growing up he was taught to fear Communist Russia because its government was known to spy on citizens.

"They followed their people, they snooped on them, they arrested people, put them in secret prisons — they disappeared them. We're (America) getting more and more like that," Wozniak said.

President Obama has no plans to scrap the programs that, despite the backlash, continue to receive widespread support within the Congress. The US says that surveillance has stopped dozens of terrorist attacks by looking at the phone records, emails and other Internet searches of people suspected of terrorism-related incidents.

US officials said the surveillance efforts helped them track down terrorist David Headley, who was handed a 35-year jail sentence by a Chicago court for his role in the deadly Mumbai massacre. This hasn’t mollified India which has asked Washington to verify a Guardian newspaper report that cited India as the fifth most heavily tracked country by US intelligence.

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2013 06:38:46 IST