Noting that Saturday was the 13th anniversary of the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Web giant AOL this week released its latest transparency report, detailing estimations of how many Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders and National Security Letters (NSLs) it’s received in the last six months.
Under current reporting guidelines from the U.S. government, companies may only report their reception of NSLs and FISA orders every six months in bands of 1,000.
For the first six months of 2014, from January to June, the government issued between 0-999 FISA court orders affecting the same number of accounts. AOL also reports the government issued between 0-999 NSLs, also affecting the same range of accounts
In fact, for every six month period since the beginning of 2011, AOL reported the same band for NSL and FISA court order reception and accounts impacted.
The report also includes more detailed information regarding law enforcement requests for user data that are not related to national security investigations.
Law enforcement agencies issued criminal demands to AOL for content-related information, such as actual chat or email logs, 264 times from January to June of this year. Those demands affected 409 accounts. That figure is comparable to the 632 demands affecting 947 accounts in 2013, the 556 demands affecting 840 accounts in 2012 and the 543 demands affecting 892 accounts in 2011.
In the first six months of 2014, the company responded to 1,522 government demands for non-content information, such as metadata, affecting 3,922 accounts. The number of demands is about on par with previous years. AOL says it received 3,260 demands in 2013, 3,430 in 2012 and 3,841 in 2011. However, the number of accounts affected is down this year compared to the 7,495, 8,181 and 11,277 reported in 2013, 2012 and 2011 respectively.
Like many of its competitors, AOL said that it “vigorously contests on behalf of [its] users any demands that we believe are ambiguous or legally defective.” AOL notes that government demands for user data impact less than .01 percent of AOL accounts and even fewer customers because some requests seek information for a single user with multiple accounts.
“AOL is committed to the goals of promoting transparency, ending the bulk collection of internet metadata, and improving oversight and accountability of government surveillance programs,” the company says. “The USA Freedom Act takes important steps towards all of these goals. To that end, we urge Congress to enact meaningful reform, and wholeheartedly support the passage of the USA Freedom Act.”
The USA FREEDOM Act is a bill that aims to curtail U.S. government surveillance in part by imposing limitations on the sections the PATRIOT Act that have enabled the sorts of surveillance U.S. citizens have become aware of following a slew of spying revelations over the last two years. The FREEDOM act remains under consideration in Congress.
On the point of NSLs, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently issued arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco opposition of the practice. Whether that court sides with the EFF or the government, it’s likely that the constitutionality of NSLs will be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court.