The companies and civil liberties groups praised the new rules, but they still will not allow the companies to reveal exactly what information is collected or even precisely how much is turned over.
In a letter to lawyers for Facebook,
Until Monday's announcement, the information was classified. The companies have pressed to be able to disclose information about the requests because they believe that it will reassure customers concerned about their privacy. They have said that the number of accounts subject to national security data demands — and the amount of information turned over — is small.
Apple responded quickly to the new rule, disclosing Monday that it had responded to between zero and 249 requests from Jan. 1, 2013, to June 30, 2013, affecting between zero and 249 customer accounts.
"Apple has always believed that our customers have the right to understand how their personal information is being handled," spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said. "We applaud the administration for taking this important step toward greater transparency. Our business does not rely on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers, which is reflected in the figures we are releasing under the new transparency rules."
Other tech companies, including Microsoft and Google, did not release any numbers, but issued a statement, saying: "We're pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we'll continue to encourage
The companies had filed a motion with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees national security orders, arguing they had a 1st Amendment right to release the information. They dropped that motion Monday as part of a deal with the Justice Department.
"This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the
President Obama had directed Holder and Clapper to come up with a methodology for the disclosures this month during his speech on intelligence reforms.
"The office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification," the statement said.
Tech companies have been under pressure at home and losing customers abroad since
In some cases,
That the FBI was making such requests was already known, but Snowden revealed the existence of broad orders from the secret federal court requiring ongoing data transfers to the NSA of customer communications relevant to terrorism or foreign intelligence.
The new rules allow companies to disclose in ranges of 1,000 the number of national security letters they received, the number of customer accounts affected, the number of court orders for content and metadata, and the number of customer "selectors" — usually email addresses — covered in those orders.
Companies can also chose to disclose the number of national security requests and selectors in bands of 250. Apple took this route.
For tech companies that have not previously been subject to such requests, there will be a two-year lag in reporting the information to avoid tipping off targets.