The Google footnote that perfectly captures US government surveillance secrecy

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Google just asked the court that oversees surveillance of foreigners inside the United States to let the company disclose more information about government demands for information. The filing, before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, argues that the first amendment of the US constitution protects Google’s right to reveal the number of data requests it receives from the secretive court and how many of its users are affected by those requests.

In setting up a high-profile court challenge with the government, Google may be seeking to bolster its reputation on privacy after disclosures that it and other technology companies participate in US surveillance programs. “Google’s reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media,” according to the filing, which you can read in full here.

But look no further than the footnote on the first page of Google’s filing for a sense of the rabbit hole into which this is heading: “Nothing in this motion is intended to confirm or deny that Google has received any order or orders issued by this court.”

In other words: Dear FISA court, please let us reveal more information about your data requests—which is not to say that you have issued any!

And that, in a nutshell, is the bizarre reality of challenging government actions that must, by the government’s decree, remain secret. It’s similar to president Barack Obama’s remark that “we welcome that debate” over surveillance programs that his administration has fought to keep hidden from public view.

The FISA court will, of course, consider Google’s motion in private.