In a big victory for leading Internet firms, the Obama administration announced an agreement Monday that allows the companies to give the public more information about how often they receive government demands for users' information.
But in a separate development, privacy advocates voiced new alarm Monday over reports that spy agencies have found ways to collect a wide range of user information that is transmitted by popular mobile applications -- including Google Maps and even the "Angry Birds" game app -- without asking the companies to supply it.
While the government's settlement with tech firms could help them show that they are not voluntarily turning over vast quantities of users' information, critics say the revelations about the government accessing mobile apps' data adds a new dimension to concerns over the companies' practice of compiling detailed user profiles for advertising and other commercial purposes.
"There are commercial uses of data that we don't like. But one of the major reasons we're concerned about the corporate collection of data has been the potential for government access and abuse," said Justin Brookman, consumer privacy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
The agreement for disclosing government data demands was negotiated after Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other leading Internet companies filed lawsuits challenging previous regulations that limited their ability to disclose how often they receive official requests for user data.
Executives from Silicon Valley's biggest Internet companies made the issue a top priority in recent months during meetings with President Barack Obama and administration officials.
The companies have been stung by news reports, based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which show that the government has collected information about Internet users in a variety of ways. The companies say they have turned over information only in response to legal demands involving small numbers of people, and they are anxious to show that they respect users' privacy.
Under the settlement announced Monday, tech companies will be allowed to provide a more detailed breakdown of the number and types of requests they receive every six months, although they still won't be allowed to say exactly what information they supplied.
The companies will be allowed to disclose different categories of demands, including requests known as "National Security Letters" as well as orders that were previously kept secret under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But they still must report the numbers in ranges of 1,000 for each category, or in ranges of 250 if they combine all national security requests into one category.
"We're pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information," said a statement issued jointly by Google, Facebook Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft and LinkedIn Corp.
While calling the settlement "a very positive step," the companies also urged Congress to pursue additional reforms of government surveillance operation.
An attorney for one leading civil liberties group called the settlement "a very small first step." Nate Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the agreement doesn't go as far as proposals in Congress that would let the companies be even more specific in saying which statutes are being invoked by government authorities.
Meanwhile, privacy advocates voiced concern Monday over reports in The New York Times and the Guardian that U.S. and British spy agencies have developed methods of collecting data transmitted by popular smartphone apps -- including a user's age, gender, location and potentially more intimate details.
The newspapers said it is unclear how much of the information is routinely collected or analyzed or how many individuals have been affected. But the Times said classified documents suggest that the spy agencies "routinely obtain information from certain apps," including the popular Google Maps.
One NSA document suggests that the agency can obtain location information, contact lists and even personal information such as sexual orientation from certain apps, according to the newspapers, while a British document spoke of extracting information from "Angry Birds," a game that has been downloaded to smartphones and tablets more than 1 billion times.
Mobile apps collect a variety of data, including personal details users volunteer when opening accounts, which can be sent over wireless networks to app developers and ad networks that use the information to deliver targeted commercials.