The National Security Agency is a lot of things. Transparent is not one of them.
On Friday, an appeals court turned down a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for details about the NSA's working relationship with Google. Per The Associated Press, the ruling reads in part: "If NSA disclosed whether there are (or are not) records of a partnership or communications between Google and NSA regarding Google’s security, that disclosure might reveal whether NSA investigated the threat, deemed the threat a concern to the security of U.S. Government information systems, or took any measures in response to the threat. As such, any information pertaining to the relationship between Google and NSA would reveal protected information about NSA’s implementation of its Information Assurance mission."
The two have been pals since February 2010, when, according to The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima, cyberspies from China hacked into Google's servers and the NSA swooped in to provide support. (China said they had nothing to do with it.) Pretty much all we know about what happened next came in an op-ed that NSA director Mike McConnell wrote for The Washington Post three weeks later. Of government agencies working with the private sector on cyber security, McConnell said that "some collaboration is inevitable." Soon thereafter, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) submitted the FOIA request that's been bouncing around in the courts. Now, according to the appeals court ruling, the NSA doesn't need to confirm or deny any details about their collaboration with the search giant.
This isn't terribly surprising in light of the NSA's broader role as the world's largest surveillance organization. However, the lack of transparency stands to undermine promises made in the past about how closely the NSA monitors our lives. Or at least, we won't be able to find out if they're breaking that promise. Last year, when it was revealed that the NSA was partnering with the major internet service providers to keep an eye on what's happening online, former deputy secretary of defense William J. Lynn said, "The U.S. government will not be monitoring, intercepting or storing any private-sector communications." Whether EPIC was checking up what the NSA is doing with our Gmail or not, this appeals court ruling makes it futile to ask.