When the police knock on a crime suspect's door at 3 a.m. with a search warrant, they're typically let inside. They'll search the place, focusing on the relevant areas, then leave. The suspect knows the search is happening and what authorities are seeking.
Not so in the digital space, where the government might present a search warrant, or court-sanctioned request, to a suspect's email provider or social network, asking for personal account information. No pounding on the door or boots on the ground, literally or metaphorically, serve as an alert that a search is underway.
“It used to be expensive to get a physical search warrant and search a house,” said Nate Cardozo, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in an interview with SCMagazine.com. However, with the creation of digital accounts, searches are now, "free, and the results are much more fruitful.”
The transition from physical to digital requests in what Cardozo calls "The Golden Age of Surveillance," has raised the hackles of privacy advocates. The EFF and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as users and providers, all have demanded openness around the methodology of these requests and insight into their reasoning.
In response came transparency reports, which are supposed to answer questions about the number of requests governments are issuing, the amount of information they're asking for, and the percentage of cases in which information is handed over.
In an email correspondence with SCMagazine.com, a Yahoo spokesperson said its reports are "driven by our commitment to and concern for our users' privacy, security and freedom of expression." And Facebook claims on its transparency report page that it wants, “to make sure that the people who use our service understand the nature and extent of the requests we receive and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them.”
While the reports are undoubtedly designed to shed light on government actions, especially after Edward Snowden's revelations that surveillance is more widespread than once believed and aimed at private citizens, experts noted that companies might use them as a marketing tactic to earn users' trust and demonstrate that they don't capitulate to voluminous government requests.
“User trust is critical to their business, particularly in an area where people are concerned about government overreaching,” said Katharine Kendrick, policy associate at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, in an interview with SCMagazine.com
Some companies might even file these reports because others are doing so, said Ryan Budish, fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, in an interview with SCMagazine.com. And, not doing so, might raise suspicions that a company has something to hide.