Revelations about the program, called PRISM, have opened fissures between U.S. officials and the involved companies, which have scrambled to reassure their users without violating strict rules against disclosing information that the government has classified as top secret.
A high-profile legal showdown might help Google’s efforts to portray itself as aggressively resisting government surveillance, and a victory could bolster the company’s campaign to portray government surveillance requests as targeted narrowly and affecting only a small number of users.
Tuesday’s unusual legal move came after days of intense talks between federal officials and several of the technology companies, including Google, over what details can be released. It also comes as the firms increasingly show signs of wanting to outdo each other in demonstrating their commitment to protecting user privacy.
In its petition, Google sought permission to publish information about how many government data requests the surveillance court approves and how many user accounts are affected. Google long has made regular reports with regard to other data demands from the U.S. government and other governments worldwide, but it has been forced to exclude requests from the surveillance court, which oversees an array of official monitoring efforts that target foreigners.
Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo in recent days have won federal government permission to include requests from the court as part of the overall number of data requests they receive from federal, state and local officials. Google has rejected that approach as too imprecise to help users understand the scope of its cooperation with federal surveillance.
“Google’s users are concerned about the allegations. Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities,” it said.
In a statement also issued Tuesday, the company said, “Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests — as some companies have been permitted to do — would be a backward step for our users.”
The Justice Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment Tuesday night.
Surveillance court requests typically are known only to small numbers of a company’s employees. Discussing the requests openly, either within or beyond the walls of the company, can violate federal law.
Yet even if Google is permitted to say how many requests the surveillance court has made, the information may not shed much light on PRISM. The program does not require individual warrants from the surveillance court each time a search is made.