On Tuesday 11th June, Google announced the details of its links with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the company’s involvement with internet surveillance. After this announcement many expected other sites known to be involved with NSA to do the same. However they were proven wrong. When Facebook was asked the following day how it handles requests which result from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the social media platform declined.
Jodi Seth a Facebook spokesman commented. “We are prevented by law from talking about anything related to FISA, including processes.” On the same day Google revealed comprehensive details about how the site handles requests from FISA under Section 702. Section 702 is the binding legislation which legalises the controversial FSA PRISM program.
Chris Gaither, a Google spokesperson explained in an interview with Wired. “When required to comply with these requests, we deliver that information to the US government. This is generally done through secure FTP transfers or in person.” In the same interview he explained. “The U.S. government does not have the ability to pull that data directly from our servers or network.”
In a later statement Seth explained why she couldn’t say much more. “In the statement we’re asking the government to change the law, and if they did we would be willing to discuss these matters. But as of right now, we’re prevented from doing that, and that is the law.” The law itself doesn’t forbid companies from discussing how they respond to FISA requests. However they do come with gag orders. These gag orders usually forbid recipients from stating the existence of the orders. Technically these orders can also prevent companies from revealing the process behind their compliance with their FISA obligations.
Nate Cardazo, a staff attorney with the Electric Frontier Foundation, explained: “These gag orders are vastly over broad. And if the court also put other conditions on the order that said that they couldn’t discuss technical details, then that would be true. But we have no way of knowing without seeing the court order.”
The view was echoed by Julian Sanchez. Sanchez is much respected for his work in the intersection of technology and civil liberties. Due to this work he was made a research fellow at the Cato Institute. “Recipients are gagged from acknowledging even the existence of any orders, and therefore describing any specific mechanisms of compliance, which would confirm they had received such orders.” He went on to state the notion as “totally crazy.”
So essentially Facebook is legally unable to announce whether it received FISA requests or not. Let alone discuss how the platform responds to these requests. Another Facebook spokesperson Frederic Wolens said: “Even if there was a gag order. We couldn’t even tell you about the order itself.”