Web spying scandal: Internet giants urge US Govt. to reveal security requests

13/06/2013

Internet giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter all calling for more flexibility in disclosing more about that national security requests they receive from the US government.

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Major technology firms in the US are now seeking to win back public confidence after it was revealed that government surveillance programme allegedly had direct access to their servers.

Secret documents obtained last week by The Guardian and Washington Post indicate that the highly classified operation, known as PRISM, granted the NSA free rein to access technology firms networks at any time, giving the agency access to the time, location and content of messages.

PRISM is primarily geared toward foreign and terror intelligence gathering but also catches home grown users.

In the initial report, nine firms were alleged to be willing accomplices in the scheme; including Yahoo! PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple (see slide leaked to the Guardian below).

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The news has sparked widespread concern in the US. Nearly 20,000 people have signed a petition at Progressive Change Campaign Committee calling on Congress to hold investigations.

‘Greater transparency’

Following the public outcry, Google was quick to try and calm fears about web snooping.
In a statement, David Drummond, chief legal officer at Google, argued that greater openness and transparency would help to dispel exaggerated public fears based on reports about PRISM without harming national security,

The statement read:

"Google has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users’ trust. For example, we offer encryption across our services; we have hired some of the best security engineers in the world; and we have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data.

"We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.

"Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters. There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative."

Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security.

Now, Microsoft and Twitter have joined calls by Google and Facebook to challenge this and be able to publish how many secret requests they receive.

"Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including Fisa orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues," Microsoft said in a statement to the Reuters news agency.

Twitter's General Counsel Alex Macgillivray wrote in a post that the company would like support efforts to increase transparency.

‘Dropbox-style’ access to data

The tech companies' denials have concentrated on suggestions that they had given the NSA "direct access" to their servers. The phrase comes from a Prism presentation slide that states: "Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."

According to the New York Times, some companies, including Google and Facebook, discussed setting up secure online "rooms" where requested information could be sent and accessed by the NSA. Such systems would allow them to dispute the idea of direct access.

According to the documents revealed by Ed Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has access on a massive scale to individual chat logs, stored data, voice traffic, file transfers and social networking data of individuals.

The system seems to involve access to a ‘Dropbox-style’ system which grants wiretapping requests made by US government agents pies under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The US government confirmed it did request millions of phone records from US company Verizon, which included call duration, location and the phone numbers of both parties on individual calls.

Leaked slides about the scheme suggest annual running costs of just $20m a year; minuscule in the context of the NSA’s estimated overall budget of $10bn a year or more.

Watch the video from 29-year-old government contractor Ed Snowden (the source of the leak) below:

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