AT&T is the latest US telecom to release a transparency report that includes new information on the number and nature of National Security Letters and court orders it has been issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
This sort of disclosure has only recently been allowed due to government policy changes in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal spurred by information leaked by Edward Snowden.
When it comes to NSL data, companies are only able to provide a broad range. In 2013, AT&T received a total of 2,000 to 2,999 National Security Letters across 4,000 to 4,999 customer accounts. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders for content numbered less than 1,000, but customer accounts affected numbered between 35,000 and 35,999.
These court orders were issued to communications providers to secretly gain access to data related to national security investigations, such as international terrorism or espionage.
AT&T also disclosed that it received 301,816 subpoenas, court orders and search warrants for real-time information, stored content such as text and voice messages, and location requests by law enforcement. Most of these requests (223,659) were criminal court subpoenas.
It’s also interesting to note that among all the subpoenas, court orders and search warrants, AT&T rejected or challenged 3,756 of them, and granted no or only partial information in 13,707 cases.
US telecom Verizon released its transparency report in January, reporting having received between 1,000 and 2,000 NSLs in 2013.
In March 2013, a California court declared it unconstitutional that a recipient is prevented from disclosing that it even had an NSL. And major tech companies have banded together to ask demand that the government make at least some of the details around NSLs known.
In his presidential policy directive (PPD-28) last month, US President Barack Obama added certain provisions requiring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to declassify more of its decisions and allow National Security Letter recipients to divulge more information about them, such as their number and nature. And on January 27, the Department of Justice provided new guidance, authorizing Verizon and other telecoms to disclose certain information, in a specified manner, related to the NSL and FISA orders they have received.
Given the lack of transparency in the past, however, measures such as allowing the disclosure of information related to NSLs may only tell part of the story of government surveillance.