End the Lie

Report states tech giants worked with government surveillance program, companies deny role in PRISM

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By End the Lie

This slide shows when each company joined the PRISM program (Image credit: documents obtained by the Guardian)

This slide shows when each company joined the PRISM program (Image credit: documents obtained by the Guardian)

The New York Times reports that the Internet giants involved in the secret PRISM surveillance program agreed to cooperate with the government. The same companies have issued denials which some argue are actually cleverly worded attempts to obscure their involvement.

All of this comes in response to the reports exposing the NSA’s massive surveillance program known as PRISM which gives them access to the servers of some of the largest Internet companies which was quickly defended by Obama. The information about PRISM was released shortly after it was revealed that Verizon was secretly ordered to hand over all the records of U.S. phone calls in their system.

Now the New York Times reports that in some cases the companies actually changed their computer systems to make it more efficient and secure for the government to conduct surveillance.

These changes were made after a series of secret negotiations that “illustrate how intricately the government and tech companies work together, and the depth of their behind-the-scenes transactions.”

These were far from low level discussions, according to people briefed on the discussions and one person who actually attended who was cited by the Times.

In recent months Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with executives at Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Intel with the official aim of discussing the future of the Internet but the conversation went further.

A person who attended the meetings told the Times that they also discussed how the companies would work with the government on their intelligence-gathering.

The details revealed by the Times show how the companies that thoroughly denied any knowledge of a program where they provided “direct access” to their servers could say such a thing without outright lying.

The companies “drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers,” the New York Times reports.

The companies acknowledged that they do comply with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests and other court orders, which is what the negotiations would fall under.

As Josh Constantine noted for TechCrunch, the language they used was quite clever indeed.

“Direct Access” didn’t mean no access. “Back door” didn’t mean no door. “Only in accordance with the law” didn’t mean PRISM is illegal. And you didn’t need to have heard of a codename to have participated. Larry, Zuck, you didn’t spell out your denials of the NSA’s data spying program in plain English, and now we know why. You were obligated to help the government in its spying, but were muzzled.”

“Larry” refers to Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page and “Zuck” refers to co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. Both released statements in response to the PRISM news along with every other company named in the NSA presentation according to the Guardian.

Chris Soghoian, a tech expert and privacy researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union similarly explained to Foreign Policy that “the phrase ‘direct access’ connotes a very specific form of access in the IT-world: unrestricted, unfettered access to information stored on Google servers. In order to run a system such as PRISM, Soghoian explains, such access would not be required, and Google’s denial that it provided ‘direct access’ does not necessarily imply that the company is denying having participated in the program.”

Normally, the only people who have that kind of “direct access” to the servers of an Internet giant like Google would be Google engineers.

Soghoian similarly said that Google’s denial of setting up a “back door” could very well be accurate since a back door means a method of accessing a system that is neither documented nor known by the system’s owner.

“By denying that it set up a back door, Google is not denying that it worked with the NSA to set up a system through which the agency could access the company’s data,” Foreign Policy notes.

Similar to the point raised by Constantine, Foreign Policy notes that there is no reason to believe that the intelligence officials who reportedly worked with Google would use the actual codename of the program with them.

Even when Google says they provide “user data to governments only in accordance with the law,” there is reason to believe they aren’t lying.

PRISM as we know it currently is most likely within the bounds of the law, according to George Washington University Law School professor Orin Kerr.

It seems the cleverly worded responses have fooled many people into thinking they were denying any and all involvement in any program remotely resembling what we know about PRISM. Apparently that is not the case. A few deftly placed words can make a lot of difference.

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2 Responses to Report states tech giants worked with government surveillance program, companies deny role in PRISM

  1. Warrior June 8, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    “The NSA Is Lying”: U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails Says NSA Whistleblower

  2. Bruce June 9, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    BS (Bush Shadow)! Since at least unConstitutional ex post facto exoneration, telecoms have become US’ PRISM trusties!


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