Government data transparency reports become tech industry norm

By Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

Even startups are issuing government transparency reports these days.

TRANSPARENCY: Company reports about government user data requests are becoming the industry norm.

Virtru, a privacy startup whose technology focuses on email security, released its first transparency report Monday.

The report revealed that the company, which plans to release a follow-up report in September, hasn’t received any government requests for user data or encryption keys.

“We believe our customers and the public at large deserve to know what companies and governments are doing with their data — throughout its lifetime, wherever it travels,” John Ackerly, CEO and co-founder of Virtru, said in a media statement.

Virtru’s announcement demonstrates a larger trend by the nation’s tech and telecom companies to publicly report on government requests for their users’ data, as well as how they process those requests.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen transparency reporting go from something that only the most privacy-conscious companies engaged in, to an industry norm,” Nate Cardozo, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s digital civil liberties team, told Watchdog.org in an email.

EFF is a digital civil liberties advocacy organization based in San Francisco.

Last week, Comcast and Time Warner Cable joined CREDO Mobile, Verizon and AT&T in reporting government user data requests.

The Internet service providers — who have begun publishing those requests since the beginning of the year — are responding to the global uproar against the National Security Agency and the U.S. tech industry, sparked by revelations from classified documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Internet companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple, also have issued their own reports detailing secret government requests for user information amid pressure from privacy activists.

The companies have since worked to regain user trust amid the fallout of Snowden’s leaks by advocating for government transparency and aggressively denying knowledge of the NSA’s data collection efforts.

During a recent talk before the global Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett said the agency was considering a proposal to release its own transparency reports.

Rajesh De, general counsel for NSA, recently stated, however, that companies that provided user data to the agency, despite their denials, were fully aware of the the program with which they were cooperating.

De’s admission shifts the posture for the agency, which has been on the defensive since Snowden’s leaks were first published in June 2013 by the Guardian and Washington Post.

U.S. tech companies, however, placed under gag order, were forced to deny any knowledge of the programs for fear of legal repercussions.

When the Department of Justice relaxed the gag orders it placed on the companies, tech companies began to report more confidently in the types of user data requests they received from the U.S. government.

“Such reporting serves an important role in our democracy, as it allows voters and policy makers to observe the scope of the surveillance state,” Cardozo said. ”The fact that transparency reports have become pervasive also shows that the market increasingly incentivizes businesses to value their customers’ privacy.”

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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