Disclosures a Necessary First Step for Oversight
July 18, 2013
If President Obama wants to have a real debate on privacy and security, his administration needs to be far more transparent about how existing laws are being used. These disclosures are a necessary first step toward meaningful oversight and discussion of the proper limits of surveillance powers.
Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher

(Washington, DC) – The US government should provide more information about secret surveillance programs, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 18, 2013, Human Rights Watch, along with over 20 technology companies and over 30 nongovernmental organizations and investors, sent a letter asking President Barack Obama, directors of US security and intelligence agencies, and Congressional leaders to take specific steps to expand reporting on national security surveillance.

“If President Obama wants to have a real debate on privacy and security, his administration needs to be far more transparent about how existing laws are being used,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These disclosures are a necessary first step toward meaningful oversight and discussion of the proper limits of surveillance powers.”

The Obama administration should allow technology companies to report on the aggregate number of requests for user data they have received under national security authorities. The government should permit companies to break down this data by legal provision, type of information sought, and the number of users affected. Several of the companies that have signed the joint letter already issue similar “transparency reports” for criminal law enforcement data requests. However, current law and practice impose many limitations on disclosure of national security requests.

The government allows only very vague disclosures without a sufficient level of detail to communicate clearly what is happening. After negotiations in June, companies were allowed to report on the number of national security orders they received, but only if the data was aggregated with law enforcement requests from all other US local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies; if requests for all of a company’s services were combined; and if the totals were presented in ranges of 1,000. In addition, companies were only allowed to report for one six-month period.

The government should also expand its own annual reporting to include aggregate data on how agencies are exercising surveillance powers for national security and foreign intelligence purposes. Such disclosures would augment existing statutory reporting requirements for criminal law enforcement investigations.

“Clearer reporting is critical to assessing whether surveillance practices are really proportional and whether companies are sticking up for their users,” Wong said. “The public can’t have a rational debate about these programs when so much remains shrouded in secrecy.”