Dropbox joins bid to publish spy data requests

The company wants to be transparent about how much information the government is demanding

Cloud storage locker Dropbox has joined Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook in their quest for permission to publish the number of data requests they have received from the U.S. government, and the number of users affected by those requests.

Dropbox filed a brief with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court asking for confirmation that it has the right to report the number of national security requests it receives, if any, Dropbox said in an update to its transparency report page on Monday.

The online storage service has an interest in motions already filed by other tech companies because the government has told Dropbox that it isn't allowed to say exactly how many national-security requests it receives, Dropbox said in the brief. The company is allowed to publish information about those requests only if they are lumped together with regular law-enforcement requests and, even then, only in groups of 1,000, it said.

"Because Dropbox received fewer than 100 regular law-enforcement requests last year, reporting in the government's format would decrease Dropbox' ongoing transparency efforts," Dropbox said.

Dropbox received 87 requests for user information in the U.S. in 2012, and those specified 164 user accounts. It responded to 82 percent of the requests, according to Dropbox' transparency page. The service received fewer than 20 non-U.S. requests for user information in the same period and responded to none of them, because it currently requires data requests to go through the U.S. judicial system.

"There is no statute, nor any other law, supporting the government's demands," Dropbox said. "To the contrary, the proposed gag order violates the First Amendment, as it interferes with both the public's right to obtain truthful information about a matter of substantial public debate and service providers' rights to publish such information."

The company asked the court to confirm that all online services may publish accurate information about the number of national-security requests received within a reporting period, along with the number of accounts affected by those requests.

Dropbox did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

Facebook, Google and Yahoo filed similar requests in early September, arguing that their users have the right to know. The companies agree that while government surveillance may serve some national security interests, the level of secrecy around these requests undermines basic freedoms.

LinkedIn filed a similar petition with the court on Sept. 17.

"Dropbox joining the fight at the FISA court highlights a growing consensus in the U.S. tech industry that the government absolutely must be more transparent about its national security-related surveillance efforts, not only to provide accountability but to preserve consumer trust in American Internet companies," said Kevin Bankston, senior counsel and free expression director at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), in an email.

The CDT is working with the tech companies to "press for their right to share more information about what they do, and don't do, when the NSA comes calling," Bankston wrote.

The CDT expects a government brief opposing the tech vendors' motions to be filed next Monday.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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