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Google reveals how often the FISA court orders it to turn over user data

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Google shone a little light on the U.S.'s secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Monday, revealing for the first time how frequently its courts demand user data.

Plenty of tech companies, Google included, have previously released statistics on how many orders they get from regular courts to turn over information to conventional law enforcement agencies, like local police. But FISA courts, which typically hear classified requests from agencies like the FBI and National Security Agency, are classified, so stats on their operations are almost impossible to come by.

Like most transparency reports, Google's only includes numbers rounded to the nearest thousand. Many of its stats don't seem to say a lot. For example, in every six-month period from 2009 through 2013, the company received fewer than a thousand requests for non-content data (i.e. no personal emails or chat logs). During the same period, it received under a thousand requests for content.

But where it gets interesting is how many users' accounts were demanded by FISA courts over that period. That number fluctuates considerably over that time frame, indicating that the U.S.'s top intelligence agencies had multiple requests for large numbers of users at a time. Never did it go six months without ordering information on fewer than 2,000 users, and in one period, from July-Dec. 2012, it demanded between 12,000 and 12,999 accounts.

The transparency ends there, however. Google's so far not been authorized to reveal any more information on the program, so there's no way of knowing what kinds of information, and on who, intelligence agencies are requesting. One recent study showed that section 702 of FISA, which authorizes the NSA's mysterious, controversial PRISM program, is infrequently used, and data collected under 702 was only accessed in 4.4 percent of terrorist investigations.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III