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After NSA encryption furor, tech companies ask for more transparency

This undated photo made available by Google shows backup tapes stored at a data center in Berkeley County, S.C.  It can, at first glance, seem a leap ...
This undated photo shows backup tapes stored at a Google data center in Berkeley County, S.C. Connie Zhou

Following revelations that the NSA may be compromising encryption standards, tech companies in the U.S. are on the defensive, answering the potential threat to their own reputations with expressions of outrage and a volley of petitions to publish more information about government requests.

Google filed a transparency petition on Monday seeking the ability to publish "detailed statistics" about information sought for U.S. foreign intelligence gathering. The company joins Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo in doing so.

"Today’s motions from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo ... press for the companies’ right to publish the number of specific types of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) requests that each company receives," said Kevin Bankston of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

"This is an important right for the companies to assert as they work to maintain their users' trust in the face of continuing revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance of the Internet."

Meanwhile, Google, Facebook and others met Monday with a panel established by the White House to review the sweeping domestic surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency. 

The panel established by the White House, called The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, was charged with recommending how to balance security and privacy concerns. President Barack Obama met with the new group on Aug. 27. It is to provide an interim report within two months.

Google is also closing some of its own data back doors in the wake of the NSA allegations, says the Washington Post, which reported that, "Google is racing to encrypt the torrents of information that flow among its data centers." 

Separately, Google maintains that it "[does] not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems. Also "As for recent reports that the U.S. government has found ways to circumvent our security systems, we have no evidence of any such thing ever occurring," a Google spokesperson said in a statement emailed to NBC News. 

On Friday, Yahoo published the company's first transparency report, indicating that it had received 12,444 data requests from the U.S. government relating to 40,322 accounts in the first six months of 2013. 

"We regularly push back against improper requests for user data, including fighting requests that are unclear, improper, overbroad or unlawful," Ron Bell, General Counsel, Yahoo, wrote in a Tumblr post explaining the release.

Yahoo said the alleged snooping had "substantial potential for abuse" while Microsoft has "significant concerns" and "will be pressing the government for an explanation," according to statements published by the Guardian on Saturday, and confirmed by NBC News. 

Facebook, which published its own transparency report on Aug. 27, also got into the fray, when the social network's general counsel published a letter describing the company's previous requests for more transparency.

On Monday morning, Facebook's Colin Stretch wrote that: 

... although we have been permitted to disclose a range of the total number of requests we have received and the number of users associated with those requests, we have not been permitted to specify even approximately how many of those requests may be national security-related, nor have we been permitted to provide information identifying the number of those requests that seek the content of users’ accounts.

Facebook's latest global data request report showed that the U.S. government led the global call for data requests, asking for details of over 38,000 Facebook users in the first six months of 2013.

In a statement emailed to NBC News, a Facebook spokesperson wrote that: "We have not consulted with the NSA or any other government agency about the security features in our products, including encryption, and we never would do so. We continue to believe the reporting on this issue is misleading and inaccurate." 

Since the Guardian's first revelations that the NSA was engaged in high-tech snooping of U.S. civilians over domestic communication lines, trade organizations and tech companies have been requesting permission for more open disclosure of government requests for data, each wave of allegations followed by louder requests for transparency. One comprehensive request dated July 18 this year by the Center for Democracy and Technology included signatures from Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Dropbox, Reddit, and many others. 

A post published Friday on the IC On The Record, a Tumblr account hosted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, dismissed the news of NSA's encryption cracking tactics as obvious and dangerous: 

Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+

This story was updated at 5:25 p.m. ET. Reuters also contributed to this report.