In a group of simultaneous and totally cryptic public reports, tech companies including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Apple all disclosed for the first time Monday the scope and number of requests they responded to from the U.S. government regarding user data and communications last year. Their hands were tied by strictures on these disclosures, forcing them all to provide number ranges no smaller than 1,000 and to be very general about the types of requests they received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

As the Mercury News reports, demands from the government during the first half of 2013 related to approximately 59,000 email and social media accounts, and in this week's reports these companies seem to be trying to say, "See, it's not so many accounts after all."

The reports come as a result of lawsuits brought against the government by these companies who have been eager to deal with the public relations nightmare created by Edward Snowden's NSA document disclosures over the past year. The resulting settlements allowed the companies to say broadly what kind of requests they get and generally how many in a given period, but as one civil liberties attorney puts it, the result is "a small, slightly blurry snapshot of a much bigger picture."

For instance, for the first six months of 2013:

Google said it fielded between zero and 999 FISA requests involving 9,000 to 9,999 user accounts... Microsoft reported between zero and 999 FISA requests involving content for 15,000 to 15,999 accounts. Facebook reported between zero and 999 requests involving content for 5,000 to 5,999 accounts. Yahoo reported between zero and 999 requests involving content for 30,000 to 30,999 accounts.

It goes on like that. Basically, all we can tell is that Yahoo got the lion's share of requests maybe because terrorists like Yahoo best? Or because it's easier to set up multiple email accounts there? The only other thing we know is that the vast majority of these requests were for "content" as opposed to metadata, so these were hunts for information beyond phone numbers and email addresses.

It remains unclear what these companies hope to gain with these reports, but maybe it's a step in the right direction? In the end, the government is still spying on us, but maybe only 59,000 of us at a time.

[Mercury News]