Even though Google bi-annually releases a transparency report revealing how many requests are made by governments around the world for information of its users, until now the search engine giant hadn’t been able to report the number of the requests made in national security investigations.

Google in a blog post Tuesday announced that it would be including the number of National Security Letters, those issued by the FBI as part of national security investigations, it received each year in the government’s attempt to obtain personally identifying information about its users.

But, due to an agreement with the FBI, Google is only able to publish a range for the number of NSLs it received for a range of users/accounts. That range each year from 2009 through 2012 was 0-999 NSLs.

Google Reveals Range Number of National Security Letters It Receives From the FBI Each Year

(Image: Google)

“You’ll notice that we’re reporting numerical ranges rather than exact numbers. This is to address concerns raised by the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies that releasing exact numbers might reveal information about investigations. We plan to update these figures annually,” Richard Salgado, Google’s legal director for its law enforcement and information security division, wrote in the post.

Wired’s David Kravets wrote for Threat Level the position by the government that only a range of numbers be published is “questionable” given that it’s required to publicly reveal the number of NSLs it issues annually anyway.

Salgado expounded upon Google’s role when it receives such a request in the blog post as well:

When we receive these requests, we:

  • scrutinize them carefully to ensure they satisfy the law and our policies;
  • seek to narrow requests that are overly broad;
  • notify users when appropriate so they can contact the entity requesting the information or consult a lawyer; and
  • require that government agencies use a search warrant if they’re seeking search query information or private content, like Gmail and documents, stored in a Google Account.
Google Reveals Range Number of National Security Letters It Receives From the FBI Each Year

This is an example of a National Security Letter obtained by EFF. (Image: EFF/Wikimedia)

Naturally, information privacy advocates had something to say about the number of NSLs being sent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Dan Auerbach and Eva Galperin wrote in a blog post that although the NSLs can only obtain “relevant” information to investigations, the “process suffers from an inherent lack of checks that would curb abuse, such as any kind of meaningful judicial review.”

“While we continue to be in the dark about the full extent of how the law is being applied, this new data allays fears that NSLs are being used for sweeping access to large numbers of user accounts–at Google, at least,” the EFF writers continued.

EFF applauded Google’s transparency efforts and encouraged other Internet companies to share similar information as well “to give us a more complete picture” of the government’s activity as it pertains to NSLs.

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Featured image via 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com