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Secret US spy court lets Microsoft, Google reveal their petitions

We'll see their pleas to be ungagged, no actual gags will be dropped

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America's most secret court will allow Google and Microsoft to reveal details of their legal battle to lift a gag order preventing them from disclosing how much data they give to spooks.

The tech giants want the right to tell the world exactly how much information they hand over to spies and have demanded the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court lifts a gagging order preventing them from doing so.

Both Microsoft and Google are fighting to clear their names after it was alleged they gave agents working on the National Security Agency's PRISM programme full access to their servers - a claim the pair flatly deny. The tech giants insist they only hand over data when a specific legal request is made, backed up by a court order, which is very different from simply giving spooks an unlocked back door into their systems.

Normally, any FISA case would be cloaked in secrecy. But according to tech site CNET, Reggie Walton, presiding judge of the court, told US President Barack Obama he will allow both firms to disclose "procedural information" about their case.

John Carlin, acting assistant attorney general for national security, also told the website that neither of the firm's legal filings contain "contain information that is now classified, nor information that should be held under seal", two objections which would allow the Justice Department to demand the case is heard in secret.

Google and Microsoft want to reveal the number of requests the court made under Section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act, which was passed in 2008 and allows the court to approve plans to spy on foreign targets, as long as reasonable steps are taken to make sure the surveillance programmme does not focus on American citizens.

Judge Walton has given the Justice Department until 9 July to respond to Google and Microsoft's requests, who then have until 16 July to reply.

Microsoft said spooks had made 6,000 to 7,000 requests for information, while Google received 8,438 requests. However, both firms want the right to be more specific about who made the requests, allowing them to tell the public how many were for regular criminal matters - like information on missing people or suspected paedophiles - and how many were surveillance requests made under FISA legislation.

Meanwhile, as Microsoft and Google fight to clear their names, the man who put them into hot water in the first place is still on the run in Russia, where he is thought to be hiding out in an airport awaiting a flight to Ecuador.

Perhaps in a bid to stave off American fury at the fact they allowed Edward Snowden to leave Hong Kong on a jet plane, the island's authorities have claimed US agents got the whistleblower's middle name wrong on documents demanding his arrest.

Hong Kong's justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen, claimed the Americans had not even bothered to put Snowden's passport number on the documentation, while giving him the middle name James, rather than Joseph.

Latest reports suggest that the US has revoked Snowden’s passport, which, if he is still in Russia, would strand him beyond the legal reach of furious US spooks. ®

Remote control for virtualized desktops

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