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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Yes, tech companies accommodated NSA snooping

New York Times: When government officials came to Silicon Valley to demand easier ways for the world’s largest Internet companies to turn over user data as part of a secret surveillance program, the companies bristled. In the end, though, many cooperated at least a bit.

Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant, according to people briefed on the negotiations. They opened discussions with national security officials about developing technical methods to more efficiently and securely share the personal data of foreign users in response to lawful government requests. And in some cases, they changed their computer systems to do so.

The negotiations shed a light on how Internet companies, increasingly at the center of people’s personal lives, interact with the spy agencies that look to their vast trove of information — e-mails, videos, online chats, photos and search queries — for intelligence. They illustrate how intricately the government and tech companies work together, and the depth of their behind-the-scenes transactions.

The companies that negotiated with the government include Google, which owns YouTube; Microsoft, which owns Hotmail and Skype; Yahoo; Facebook; AOL; Apple; and Paltalk, according to one of the people briefed on the discussions. The companies were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the content of FISA requests or even acknowledging their existence.

In at least two cases, at Google and Facebook, one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said.
Good on Twitter, huh?

The denials of these tech giants are beginning to look a little dishonest, due to the selectiveness of what they deny. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has a Facebook post up denying he gave the government “direct access” to Facebook servers — without mentioning the “secure portals” NYT reports. These would not strictly be “direct access.” He also says, “We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.” The guys who landed at Normandy had never heard of Operation Overlord, either — despite being right in the middle of it. So what? The name of the program was on a need-to-know basis and tech companies didn’t need to know.

But if the companies were legally required to hand over the information, why the smokescreens and selective denials?

“While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not, which is why Twitter could decline to do so,” the Times reports.

Yeah, that would explain it.

[photo by Robert Scoble]

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