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Tech firms' responses to latest NSA disclosures cloud the truth, experts say

Zach Miners | Aug. 26, 2013
The NSA paid millions to compensate companies' surveillance costs, new documents claim

Snowden's original leaks revealing Prism described a program aimed at the mass collection of data owned by U.S. citizens through direct access to company servers. Google and other tech companies have denied cooperating with the NSA to allow the mass collection of data.

They gave similar denials on Friday in response to questions from the IDG News Service.

"Facebook has never received any compensation in connection with responding to a government data request," a Facebook spokeswoman said.

"We think the continued misreporting on this matter by The Guardian and others is troubling," she added in an email.

Google said it has "not joined Prism or any government surveillance programs."

"We do not provide any government with access to our systems and we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law," a spokeswoman said.

Both Yahoo and Microsoft offered more legalistic, complicated responses. Their responses make it clear that the companies' deals for government compensation are more complicated than something they can simply confirm or deny.

"Microsoft only complies with court orders because it is legally ordered to, not because it is reimbursed for the work," a spokesman said. "We could have a more informed discussion of these issues if providers could share additional information, including aggregate statistics on the number of any national security orders they may receive," he said.

Microsoft asked for permission in June to aggregate statistics about the number of requests for data it receives under the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Currently, companies can reveal the number of FISA requests they receive only if they lump them together with all other requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Yahoo said it had nothing to add beyond the statement that the company supplied to The Guardian, which said "federal law requires the U.S. government to reimburse providers for costs incurred to respond to compulsory legal process imposed by the government."

"We have requested reimbursement consistent with this law," the company said.

Semantics are at play in companies' responses, experts said.

Friday's leaked documents "say that these companies cooperate with bulk NSA data collection," said Schneier. "The companies deny it, but their denials are precisely worded with a lot of wiggle room," he said.

Also, if companies are compelled by a National Security Letter to comply, they are prohibited from talking about their compliance, Schneier said.

In its response Friday, Google said it continues to await the government's decision on the company's petition to publish more national security request data, "which will show that our compliance with American national security laws falls far short of the wild claims still being made in the press today."

 

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