The newest bombshell headlines from The Guardian‘s slow-drip reporting on our own National Security Agency‘s data collection/surveillance practices have created some unwanted headaches for the biggest names in tech. Last week’s article revealed that the American government didn’t just gather data from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft—it also paid them millions of dollars to cover related compliance expenses.
In short, the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or FISA court) ruled in 2011 that some of the NSA’s practices were unconstitutional since the organization could not effectively distinguish foreign communications from standard domestic messages like the ones you send your co-workers and friends every day. The Obama administration declassified this information last week.
After the ruling, the agency had to adjust its way of doing things in order to remedy the problem, and those changes cost participating tech companies millions that the NSA then paid back—hence the “financial relationship” first disclosed in the Guardian piece. It’s all quite labyrinthine and infuriating, but we’re most interested in the big names’ responses.
A Yahoo spokesperson told the Guardian:
Federal law requires the US 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.
OK then. Google’s statement reads a little more defiant:
We await the US government’s response to our 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.
We have 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.
Facebook said that it had “never received any compensation in connection with responding to a government data request”, which seems to contradict the agency’s own notes. Microsoft was even less talkative, declining to give a response on record until the story went live, at which point a spokesperson wrote:
Microsoft only complies with court orders because it is legally ordered to, not because it is reimbursed for the work. 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.
This all grows even more serious when considering another conclusion drawn from leaker Edward Snowden’s classified documents: the NSA’s new and revised way of doing things still didn’t sufficiently filter domestic communications.
Legally and politically, it’s a big mess. Here’s the PR problem: many consumers believe, whether correctly or not, that Google and Facebook are modern versions of Big Brother, collecting data from unknowing users to sell to the highest bidder (or marketer). So how can these statements possibly satisfy critics?