Don’t get too comfortable – the need for tension between government and tech companies

As I’ve always said, “We don’t want the relationship between companies and government to be without tension; we want friction”.  Actually, Anupam Chander said this at Monday’s privacy lecture at Berkeley, but it’s the kind of statement that I wish I’d said.  This idea of an optimum level of friction is a good frame of reference at a time when law enforcement and companies trade words as to whether encryption will create the “phone of choice for the pedophile” or simply mean that “privacy doesn’t stop because of a government information request”.

At the same lecture, James Aquilina of Stroz Friedberg noted that a great travesty of the Snowden revelations was that it destroyed the relationship between government and companies.  He explained that the trust built after 9/11 has been completely eroded and the relationship destroyed.  The problem with this relationship breakdown is that the public still expects the government to be able to protect them.  While this might seem to be at odds with Chander's statement, I think that these statements can actually be seen as reflecting questions about how much tension there should be.

Much of our legal and political system is based on the idea that the best outcome is achieved when opponents representing different sides of a debate are able to battle it out; the separation of powers between executive, legislature, and judiciary; the adversarial court process; and the halls of Congress all rely on the tension between opposing views.  While I wouldn’t advocate for a relationship based on the level of tension within Congress, we also don’t want tech companies to be the government’s lapdogs.  It’s hard to know where the right line is on facilitating legitimate government investigations and ensuring individuals’ right to privacy. 

Twitter’s new legal fight to publish full transparency figures reminds us that the right level of tension can’t necessarily be quietly negotiated.  Instead, it may need to be lobbied and litigated.  This is particularly important when legislative change is glacially slow.  Where does this leave smaller companies, who don’t necessarily have the deep pockets to fight it out in court?  I’ve had conversations with a small, very pro-user tech company where the C-suite has agreed that if they get a national security letter, they’ll close their US operations rather than hand over the data.  But this isn’t an approach that many companies would be willing or able to take. 

As a baseline, companies of all sizes should insist on a search warrant (or the appropriate legal process under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act) before handing over user data and notify users (wherever permitted).  Companies should be proactive in their own privacy policies and procedures, paying attention to what personal information they’re collecting and storing, where they store it, and with whom they share it for commercial purposes.  Whereas the US Government has been happy to overlook the rights of non-US persons, companies that operate in the global marketplace should take a principled approach to all users (see my explanation of the glaring gaps in ECPA with respect to foreign government requests).  And if you happen to have deeper pockets and in-house legal support, consider having your day in court.

At the moment, we’re headed back into another round of the cryptowars between government and industry.  Hopefully we will soon be able to reach some kind of détente where we have a set of clearer, more appropriate boundaries for where privacy ends and legitimate government access begins.  In the meantime, let’s not shy away from a good fight.

Which countries' law enforcement are data hungry?

One of the trends from the industry-wide transparency report that’s worth looking at more closely is which countries are making requests for user data, to which companies, and on what scale.  This post will break down these statistics and suggest some of the trends behind the numbers. As I mentioned in the last post, the figures in transparency reports only refer to requests that foreign law enforcement make directly to companies, not requests through the mutual legal assistance treaty process.  Requests that come through the MLAT process are treated like requests from US law enforcement, and are bundled into the statistics for the US.  This means that the US figures are artificially inflated and I have therefore removed the figures for US requests from this analysis.

When it rains, it pours

number of requests by company
number of requests by company

The first thing to note is that the number of direct foreign requests is still low for most internet companies.  Dropbox and Pinterest did not receive any direct foreign requests.  However, the big four companies are being inundated with requests, with Microsoft receiving almost 30,000 requests in the last six months of 2013.  Twitter is barely in the scene, with less than 723 requests (Twitter’s numbers are given as a range if they fall below 10, so this figure is only approximate).

Some companies, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Wordpress are not likely to experience the same scale of requests as the big four companies.  This is because most of their content is intended to be publicly accessible.   Law enforcement therefore should not need to contact the companies to access user content; they are more likely only to need to contact the companies in order to access subscriber information to identify anonymous account holders, or to seek preservation of account information before it is deleted.  Other factors that can influence the number of requests from foreign law enforcement that a company receives include a company’s international presence, criminals’ preferences for particular platforms, and law enforcement’s familiarity with the particular company.

I have included Yahoo! in this analysis, but it is very important to note that the data in Yahoo!'s transparency report is quite different from the data in the other companies' reports.  There is still value in looking at Yahoo!'s data, but this is definitely a case of comparing apples with oranges.  Yahoo! only reports on requests that are made by countries in which they have a legal subsidiary.  This means that the requests referred to in Yahoo!'s report are made within those countries and are governed by each country's domestic laws, not US law.  For this reason, these requests can result in handing over content as well as subscriber details.  The big question is what about the countries in which Yahoo! does not have a legal subsidiary - where are those statistics?  Presumably there are Yahoo! users in countries in which Yahoo! does not have a legal subsidiary, and local law enforcement would try to request that data directly from Yahoo! in the US.  However, Yahoo! does not seem to publish any information on the number of those requests and how they responded.   Accordingly, we do not have an accurate figure to compare between Yahoo! and the other companies.

The data-hungry countries

Microsoft top 10
Microsoft top 10
Google top 10
Google top 10
Facebook top 10
Facebook top 10
Yahoo top 10
Yahoo top 10

The next breakdown that is interesting to consider is which countries are making requests to which companies.  These charts show the top 10 requesting countries to Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Facebook.  Some of this is unsurprising; Brazil, France, India and Germany have noticeable and reasonably consistent representation across the companies.  Australia seems to punch above its weight, with requests from its law enforcement officers comprising about 5-6% of each company’s total requests.  Singapore also makes a surprise entry in the Google statistics.

Some of the factors that could explain the different levels of requests from countries include:

  • the penetration levels of these companies’ products in particular markets;
  • local law enforcement’s level of awareness and competence in requesting online data; and
  • whether law enforcement feel more able to make direct requests to companies (rather than going through the slower, more cumbersome process of mutual legal assistance).

Taiwan and Hong Kong figure in Yahoo!'s top ten, but not the other companies'.  It is likely that this not only reflects the increased presence of Yahoo! in these countries, but also the skewed nature of the data set that Yahoo! provides because it only provides figures for countries in which there is a Yahoo! subsidiary.

Perhaps the standout issue in these statistics is the large number of requests to Microsoft from Turkey.  Turkey does not even make it into the top 10 for other companies, but accounts for 21% of requests to Microsoft.  This is particularly interesting given the political turmoil in Turkey during this period.  Of course, the next interesting statistic to consider is how the companies respond to the requests that they receive.  I will delve more into this issue in the next post.

International data privacy: what we need is an industry transparency report

Cross-posted from  GoogleYahoo!, MicrosoftTwitterAppleDropboxLinkedIn, and Pinterest all publish transparency reports.  Wordpress is the latest company to join the party, recently publishing their first transparency report.   However, it’s difficult to see trends and anomalies when the information is scattered across multiple individual company reports.  In order to get a comprehensive view of what is happening, we need to pull all of these fragments into a comprehensive picture.  We need an internet industry-wide transparency report.

To create a kind of hacked industry transparency report, I have consolidated the July-December 2013 transparency data from the main internet companies.  There is such a wealth of information to pore over and slice and dice in different ways that I will separate the analysis into a series of blog entries.  My interest is the international aspect, so I will focus on requests from foreign law enforcement.  This post will outline some of the key themes emerging from my comparison.Combined law enforcement data table

Only part of the picture

The first thing to note is that the transparency reports only show requests from foreign law enforcement that are made directly to the company.  As I have previously noted, there are at least three main ways in which foreign law enforcement can access user data that is held by a US company:

1.     through the US government via the mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) process;

2.     directly asking the company; or

3.     asking the FBI to obtain the data on their behalf.

The transparency reports only show requests made via method (2).  This is not the companies’ fault; by the time an MLAT request filters down to companies’ inhouse lawyers and paralegals, it simply looks like a search warrant issued by the US District Court.  For this reason, any requests that go through the MLAT system show up as US requests.  This has the unfortunate consequence of over inflating the statistics for US government requests and hiding where the requests are really coming from.

Same-same but different

The companies’ reports are similar, but not the same.  As the pioneer in this field, Google has set the template that many of the other companies now use.  The Google-inspired template includes (1) number of requests (2) percentage of requests for which data was provided and (3) number of accounts/users affected.   However, there are subtle differences in layout and content, which make it difficult to draw meaningful comparisons across companies.

For example, Microsoft divides their responses into percentages for content and non-content, which means that you can’t easily do a direct comparison with the percentages listed by companies that use the Google template.  Of course, with some 8th grade algebra, you can overcome this, but it slows down the comparison process.  A couple of other notable anomalies are that Twitter does not give a specific number for countries for which there were fewer than 10 requests.  This could be because when the numbers of requests are small, criminal suspects may be tipped off that they are under suspicion.  Dropbox does not break down their foreign requests by country at all (intriguingly, although 90 foreign requests were made, 0 accounts were affected – I can only imagine that this means that they refused all 90 requests).

There isn’t necessarily anything sinister going on here; it just makes direct comparison across companies difficult.  It would be great to see consistent reporting across the internet companies (or even some consolidating reporting!).

Content vs non-content

One of the differences in the transparency reports that reveals a more substantive issue is that the Yahoo! and Microsoft reports indicate whether content or non-content has been handed over to foreign countries.  This is more than just a question of template consistency; Yahoo! and Microsoft are notable exceptions in that they will accept jurisdiction for data requests in certain countries outside of the US.  The other companies will generally only provide content through their US headquarters, in response to a US court order (eg through the MLAT process) or in emergency situations.

It’s harder to see overseas

There is an increase in the granularity of Google’s data with each year since 2010 and other companies are starting to follow suit. The improved transparency of national security requests is also a new development.  However, when it comes to foreign requests, the level of detail takes a nosedive.  There are at least two areas where this is important:  legal process; and user notification.

Legal process

Google, LinkedIn and Dropbox break down the number of US requests according to which process was used eg subpoena, court order, or search warrant.  This is not possible for foreign requests - as noted above, the only foreign law enforcement requests that are separately shown in the transparency reports are those that are made directly to the companies and this means that there has not been any US legal process.  As I’ve noted [previously], the Electronic Communications Privacy Act does not apply to foreign governments, so they cannot use US legal process and companies have unfettered discretion about whether or not to provide non-content information to them.  Some companies take this responsibility very seriously and apply their own due diligence processes before handing over user records.  However, there is no visibility of what these standards and processes are.  As I will discuss in a later post, there are notable differences between different companies’ compliance rates for requests from the same countries, which suggests that the companies may be exercising this discretion quite differently.

User notification

In the domestic context, Dropbox and Pinterest show whether they notified the user that their records had been accessed by US law enforcement.  Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are all apparently updating their policies to increase their rate of user notification.  Depending on the legal process used, ECPA establishes different obligations with respect to notification for access by law enforcement.  This is quite an interesting statistic but it would arguably be more important to see the statistics for foreign requests.  The fact that ECPA does not apply to foreign governments means that there is no obligation on companies to notify users if foreign law enforcement accesses their records.  Since there is no legal obligation on companies, it is entirely a matter of policy as to whether or not they notify users and we have no visibility of how this plays out in practice.

I have attached the raw data from my unified industry transparency report, but will be sharing charts and diagrams that break up the data into more intelligible chunks over the next week or so.

What is the greatest risk to online rights - government, companies or anarchy?

Nick Merrill is building an internet service provider called Calyx. Calyx will be designed to encrypt user's data in such a way that it'll be inaccessible to anyone but that user. Which means that if the government asks for your browser history or emails, Calyx will be technologically unable to hand them over.’. When I stumbled across this, I was horrified.  As a civil servant and government lawyer, I bridled at the blatant attempt to undermine the criminal justice process.  But then I read on and watched videos of Nick Merrill telling his story of fighting a national security letter requiring him to disclose details about one of the clients of his ISP company.  It is quite compelling to hear of his 6 year battle for recognition of his entitlement to speak with his attorney and his right to tell others that he was issued with a national security letter.  So Nick Merrell’s encrypted ISP project started to sound less like paranoia and more like a rational reaction.

Just this week, I read that at the recent Black Hat Conference, when the room full of internet and security professionals was asked who they trusted less, Google or the government, the majority raised their hands for Google.  This surprised me, given the deeply ingrained distrust of big government and led me to wonder whether we were sliding into a situation in which the public will not trust anyone with regulation of online activities.  Is the web to become a wild west of anarchy because we are too afraid to trust anyone with any form of monitoring or enforcement?


The US PATRIOT Act has a lot to answer for.  One part of the post-9/11 legislative reforms was provisions extending the FBI’s ability in certain circumstances to request records from ISPs, financial institutions and credit providers without the need for a court-issued warrant.  Moreover, recipients of national security letters were unable to challenge the request and were prohibited from telling anyone that they had received a letter (let alone the content of the letter) for an indeterminate period. Nick Merrell was the first person to challenge the constitutionality of the regime.  The personal and financial toll that the battle has taken on him makes you question whether the 9/11 terrorists were more successful at undermining the most highly-prized values in our system than we will ever care to admit.

Meanwhile, media attention on the ‘great firewall of China’ and the role of internet censorship in the Arab Spring has brought home the power of the internet internationally as a tool of oppression in the hands of an unscrupulous government.

Domestically, the fear that the government will exploit the power of the internet has found a focal point in the campaign against the Cybersecurity Act 2012.  Alarm bells are ringing for privacy advocates as the Cybersecurity Act seeks to expand the ability for ISPs to share user information with the government outside of the current judicial oversight mechanism.

Internationally, many civil society bodies seem to see the upcoming 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in December as an opportunity for governments to seize control of the internet for their own purposes.  The WCIT seeks to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations with a view to expanding the ITU’s mandate to include regulation of the internet.  Distrust of the intention behind this move has led to the creation of a wikileaks-style site that posts the preparatory reports and proposals.


While the public might have been willing to cut Google some slack over the ‘inadvertent’ capturing of private data in the UK during its street view operations (everyone makes mistakes, right?), their subsequent failure to follow through on their undertaking to delete the data might start to undermine the credibility of the ‘don’t be evil’ mandate.

I suspect that the friendly glow of social networking and web companies is also fading as the public confronts the fact that these companies are not benevolent societies established to help us share information and stay in touch with friends, but are businesses that ultimately need to make money.  Facebook’s much-analysed IPO and disappointing profits underscore the imperative for companies to find ways in which to capitalise on all that ‘big data’ that they have amassed from their user base.  The popularity of the ‘do not track’ movement, which allows users to request that websites not collect information about their online browsing habits reveals a growing distrust of web companies and their moves to use our personal data for profit.


It seems we’re at risk of descending into a Mad-Eye Moody state of ‘constant vigilance’, unwilling to trust anyone.  But short of finding a real life Dumbledore, this is not a sustainable approach.  Without effective policing of the internet, it becomes a modern wild west; a safe haven for criminals and a dangerous place for the rest of us.  But when there is no public visibility of the many times when police or security authorities’ access to online information has helped thwart criminal activities and protect users’ rights, it is difficult to assess the value of government access to online records.

At the risk of sounding like a government stooge, I think the answer lies not in efforts to circumvent government access to information, but in better systems for managing government access to our information.  Law enforcement and security authorities need quick and effective access to the information held by web companies in order to enforce the criminal laws.  Of course, all governmental power needs appropriate checks and safeguards.   This is where the national security letter scheme went wrong and this is where we should be focusing our attentions.  While I can't deny the logic of Nick Merrill's latest encrypted ISP project, I hope that this is not the direction that we end up taking.  I still hope that we can work to fix the system, rather than taking ourselves outside of the system.