Twitter Loses Fight Over National Security Surveillance Requests

Siding against Twitter, a federal judge has rejected the company's effort to disclose information about the exact number of national security surveillance requests it receives from the government.

In a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said the government had shown that disclosing even “mere aggregate numbers” of requests for either “national security letters," or other orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could pose a potential security threat to the country.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit first filed by Twitter in 2013, which sought to publish the total number of national security subpoenas during a six-month period in that year. The company argued that it has a First Amendment right to disclose whether the government sought to uncover information about users.

In denying that request, Rogers relied on declarations of Jay Tabb, executive assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, as well as his two predecessors.

“The declarations explain the gravity of the risks inherent in disclosure of the information that the government has prohibited Twitter from stating in its Draft Transparency Report, including a sufficiently specific explanation of the reasons disclosure of mere aggregate numbers, even years after the relevant time period in the Draft Transparency Report, could be expected to give rise to grave or imminent harm to the national security,” the judge wrote.

A Twitter spokesperson says the company is “disappointed” with the decision and “will continue to fight for transparency.”

Other large tech companies -- including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook -- settled a similar lawsuit against the government in 2013 by agreeing to refrain from disclosing the precise number of surveillance requests. The original settlement called for data to be disclosed in “bands” of 1,000. For instance, companies could say they received between 0 and 999 National Security Letters within a six-month time period.

Currently, companies can use narrower bands. For example, Google reported recently reported it received between 0 and 500 national security requests from July through December of 2018.

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