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DOJ to let tech companies speak out about NSA data collection

Following President Obama's call for transparency as part of a sweeping NSA reform, the Department of Justice says tech companies like Google and Apple will have more freedom to disclose government data requests.

Declan McCullagh/CNET

The US National Security Agency routinely demands that technology companies like Yahoo, Apple, Google, and Facebook fork over user data -- and limits those firms' ability to tell those users about it. Now, thanks to a new deal announced by the Department of Justice on Monday, those companies will be able to tell us more than ever about the US government's data collection practices.

Tech firms will now be able to disclose the total number of FISA court orders they receive annually and the total of number of users affected by those requests, as long as they do so in bands of 250 or 1,000. To maintain the effectiveness of the data to law enforcement, the deal also sets up a two-year buffer for any companies that have yet to receive their first order, which will also take effect for companies with past orders only with regard to new ones issued after Monday. More information on the detailed disclosure directions can be found here.

The announcement made in a joint statement by Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper directly references President Obama's NSA speech earlier this month in which he called for more transparency regarding national security orders. "Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information then ever before to their customers," the joint statement reads. In exchange for these new guidelines and declassifications, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and LinkedIn agreed to drop their lawsuits related to the disclosure restrictions.

More from the DOJ's official announcement:

This action was directed by the President earlier this month in his speech on intelligence reforms. While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.

Apple released an updated letter on national security and law enforcement orders following the DOJ announcement in which it now breaks down the requests with more specific numbers. When it originally disclosed this information last November, Apple was forced to do so with much less telling figures.

Apple's updated figures for national security orders and account information requests following the DOJ's loosening of disclosure guidelines on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The DOJ's deal comes on the heels of yet another NSA revelation Monday morning. Documents provided by Edward Snowden, revealed that the NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) rely on popular smartphone apps like Angry Birds and Google Maps to obtain a mountain of user data on everything from people's daily whereabouts to address books, age, and in some cases even sexual orientation.

That news -- published in partnership between The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica -- sheds more light on the vast array of data collection methods the NSA and GCHQ have at their disposal, illuminating many areas that are still in need of substantive reform to meet the criteria of surveillance critics and civil rights advocates calling for a more substantive reigning in of the government's surveillance apparatus.

Update at 3:15 p.m. PT: Added additional details, as well as Apple's statement and updated information request figures.