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Ear to the Ground

Tech Companies Deny Secret Collaboration With NSA

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Posted on Jun 7, 2013
Photo by Colin Dunn (CC-BY)

Google’s CEO and its top lawyer wrote an open letter to the company’s users vehemently denying, as previously reported, that the government has direct access to private data. The post is called, “What the ...?” and it echoes the sentiments of other tech giants accused of collaborating with the National Security Agency.

Facebook and Apple have also denied that the government has “direct access” to its servers and, like Google, spokesmen for those companies say they work within the framework of the law.

We’ve included Google CEO Larry Page’s full blog post below, and we’ll let it stand as the general reaction from those companies accused of allowing the NSA to rifle through their users’ emails, photos, voice and video communications and other private files. But as The Washington Post, the paper that broke the story, points out, we should not take such assurances as proof positive that our rights are not being violated:

It is possible that the conflict between the PRISM slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author. In another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers.

Government officials and the document itself made clear that the NSA regarded the identities of its private partners as PRISM’s most sensitive secret, fearing that the companies would withdraw from the program if exposed. “98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don’t harm these sources,” the briefing’s author wrote in his speaker’s notes.

It is reassuring that these companies say they are offended by the notion of mass surveillance, but the situation is clearly more complicated. Below, Larry Page and David Drummond’s letter to Google users.

—Posted by Peter Z. Scheer. 

Dear Google users—



You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers.  As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.



First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers.  Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers.  We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.



Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.  Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process.  Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period.  Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records.  We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist.  Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.



Finally, this episode confirms what we have long believed—there needs to be a more transparent approach.  Google has worked hard, within the confines of the current laws, to be open about the data requests we receive.  We post this information on our Transparency Report whenever possible.  We were the first company to do this.  And, of course, we understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety—including sometimes by using surveillance.  But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish.



Posted by Larry Page, CEO and David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer

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