A Facebook data center (Facebook photo)

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, now hiding out in Russia, charges that major Internet companies routinely hand over data on millions of their users to the National Security Agency and other governmental spooks.

Internet companies say the claims are inflated. The latest to respond is Facebook, which yesterday issued its first Global Government Requests Report, detailing the information requests it receives from countries around the world.

The ACLU, meanwhile, last night filed the opening brief in its lawsuit challenging the NSA’s ongoing collection of the call records of virtually everyone in the United States.

"We’re asking the court for a preliminary injunction ordering the government to stop collecting our data and to bar any use of the ACLU call records it already has collected," ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo said in a blog posting.

20,000 requests

In its report, Facebook says it responded to about 20,000 requests for information from United States agencies in the first half of 2013, more than half of the total of about 38,000 requests from 74 governments around the world.

"We want to make sure that the people who use our service understand the nature and extent of the requests we receive and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them," Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch in a blog post.

Stretch stressed that Facebook doesn't automatically cave in to the requests.

"We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request," he said. "We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name."

While the U.S. submitted the most requests, about 12,000, India (3,245), the United Kingdom (1,975) and Germany (1,886) were next.

Program is illegal

PhotoIn its suit, the ACLU says flatly that the NSA's electronic surveillance program is illegal.

"The NSA’s program is illegal because it is not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act as the government claims, because it invades every American’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy, and because it forces ordinary Americans to pause every time they pick up the phone to consider whether they want the NSA to know whom they’re calling – infringing on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association," Abdo said.

Abdo said the NSA has built an enormous databased filled with information about every American’s associations and affiliations. He quoted from the brief filed last night: 

Each time a resident of the United States makes a phone call, the NSA records whom she called, when the call was placed, and how long the conversation lasted. The NSA keeps track of when she called the doctor, and which doctor she called; which family members she called, and which she didn’t; which pastor she called, and for how long she spoke to him. It keeps track of whether, how often, and precisely when she called the abortion clinic, the support group for alcoholics, the psychiatrist, the ex-girlfriend, the criminal-defense lawyer, the fortune teller, the suicide hotline, the child-services agency, and the shelter for victims of domestic violence. The NSA keeps track of the same information for each of her contacts, and for each of their contacts. The data collected under the program supplies the NSA with a rich profile of every citizen as well as a comprehensive record of citizens’ associations with one another.

In its response, the government said the case should be dismissed because “persons making telephone calls, even from their own homes, lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers they call.” The government also argued that the ACLU does not have standing to challenge the NSA’s program because, although the government may be collecting its phone records, no one can prove anyone has looked at them.

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