Verizon said Thursday it will publish reports beginning early next year on the number of government requests it receives for customer data, setting a significant precedent for the telecommunications industry, which has kept that information private.
Verizon, the nation’s biggest wireless provider, has been under immense pressure from shareholders and privacy groups after revelations that the National Security Agency obtained mountains of private information from the company and other telecom firms, including AT&T. Those disclosures, in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have damaged the reputation of U.S. communications companies around the world.
Privacy advocates have long complained that the telecom industry is far more cooperative with government surveillance efforts than technology firms such as Google and Twitter.
The company will become the first in the telecom industry to provide details on government demands for data. Internet companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Apple already publish transparency reports that include how many federal, state and local demands for data they receive.
Such reports offer only broad ranges of government requests, including those from local police departments, the FBI and the NSA. The reports do not provide an agency-by-agency breakdown, though several companies have gone to court seeking the right to offer more detailed information.
Bound by court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, these companies have been prevented from detailing the number of requests by the NSA. But Verizon said it is in talks with government officials to do so.
“In the past year, there has been greater focus than ever on the use of legal demands by governments around the world to obtain customer data,” Randal S. Milch, Verizon’s general counsel, said in a blog post.
“Like others in the industry, the aim of our transparency report is to keep our customers informed about government requests for their data and how we respond to those requests. Verizon calls on governments around the world to provide more information on the types and amounts of data they collect and the legal processes that apply when they do so,” Milch said.
Verizon said its first report on 2013 data will be released early next year and updates will appear semiannually.
Shareholders of AT&T and Verizon have demanded that the companies disclose NSA data requests, saying the firms’ participation in an NSA surveillance program has hurt its reputation with customers.
Stockholders and privacy advocates applauded Verizon’s move and urged the rest of the telecom industry to follow suit.
“They are first telecom company to do this, which is significant, and we are gratified that at least initially Verizon seems to be taking the steps we put forward in our resolutions for Verizon and AT&T,” said Jonas Kron, a senior vice president for Trillium Asset Management. Trillium filed a shareholder resolution with Verizon’s board demanding transparency reports.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also has called for greater public disclosure of data requests by government.
Markey privately obtained the data through his own investigation of telecom companies.
“For the past two years, I have queried the major wireless carriers for this information, and the data they have provided to me has been eye-opening. We clearly need more sunlight in this area,” Markey said in a statement.
Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.