Just How Much Did Tech Companies Play Footsie With the NSA?


Reason 24/7

How complicit are tech companies in the National Security Agency's massive spying scheme? They certainly bear some responsibility, but the rules under which the surveillance is conducted make it unclear — perhaps deliberately — the extent to which companies have resisted or folded, and also limit the channels available to the more privacy-minded to put up a fight.

News reports make it clear that many companies not only cooperated with the NSA, but even modified their systems to allow government spooks easier access to data. Others are known to have been less willing to make life easy for snoops.

From the New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — 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. …

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. …

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.

Make no mistake, even the Twitters of the world are required to surrender information about their users when ordered to do so under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And, they are forbidden to tell targeted users, civil liberties advocates or the public at large anything about such orders. Resistant companies can appeal, but only through the secretive process allowed them by the law. And we know that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved all but one of the 1,856 surveillance requests it received in 2012. One was withdrawn. None were disapproved. So, even the most privacy-minded tech executives have limited options when it comes to protecting their cutomers' information.

From Reuters:

U.S. Internet companies that want to resist government demands to hand over customer data for intelligence investigations have few legal options, due to the classified nature of such probes and a court review process shrouded in secrecy.

Google Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp are among the big U.S. technology companies that were outed this week as key sources of data for the National Security Agency (NSA), under a surveillance program referred to inside the spy agency as Prism.

While the companies have uniformly denied knowledge of Prism and said they had not given the NSA direct access to their servers, U.S. officials have confirmed the existence of the program, which President Barack Obama defended as "a modest encroachment" on privacy that was necessary to protect national security. …

For electronic service providers, the law says the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington can authorize a company to provide "all information, facilities, or assistance necessary." In return for compliance, the company is compensated for its work and receives immunity from potential lawsuits.

Section 702 is a "broad tool to get the information they are looking for," said Matt Zimmerman, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco civil liberties group critical of the law.

As Reuters adds, companies may be appealing surveillance orders willy-nilly, but we have no way of knowing. Or, they may be folding wholesale.

Any company that objects to a judge's order can appeal to the entire Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but there is no public data on whether they have ever done so. The law allows for further appeals to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's possible there have been challenges, but if so they are still secret," said Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which unsuccessfully tried to overturn the 2008 law as unconstitutional.

So far, the best evidence of resistance is the refusal of Twitter to make surveillance easier for the government, and the publication of surveillance reports by companies including Google and Twitter which reaveal, up to the limits of the law, surveillance demands and at least hint at larger efforts as a warning to the public.

But, for all of the efforts at privacy by some companies and support for increased transparency by some executives, keep in mind that much of the tech industry is happy to pal around with the politicians who administer the security state. As the New York Times pointed out:

Yet since tech companies' cooperation with the government was revealed Thursday, tech executives have been performing a familiar dance, expressing outrage at the extent of the government's power to access personal data and calling for more transparency, while at the same time heaping praise upon the president as he visited Silicon Valley.

Even as the White House scrambled to defend its online surveillance, President Obama was mingling with donors at the Silicon Valley home of Mike McCue, Flipboard's chief, eating dinner at the opulent home of Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist, and cracking jokes about Mr. Khosla's big, shaggy dogs.

Some of the complaints about government pressure from business executives are, no doubt, sincere. But take them all with a grain of salt.

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NEXT: Law Hobbles Companies' Abilities To Resist Surveillance

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  1. I have a feeling that "Nice business you got there, shame if anything happened to it," is one of the reasons tech companies might want to "pal around" with the NSA.

    1. Well it was reason enough for the NYT editorial board.

    2. The Feds might also retaliated by charging you with whatever they can find.


  2. By the way, has anyone bothered to notice that the most sophisticated supercomputers, databases, and search algorithms on planet Earth couldn't stop those two Borat scumbags from killing and maiming a bunch of people at the Boston Marathon, even though there were about a million red flags there? Or Hasan the traitor from perpetrating the Fort Hood massacre??

    So not only are we losing what little is left of our liberty, but we're losing it for absolutely nothing, because the fucking program isn't even doing what we're all supposed to believe it was designed to do!

    1. ...deserve neither..., which is exactly what we're getting.

    2. Re: Mike M.

      So not only are we losing what little is left of our liberty, but we're losing it for absolutely nothing,

      I hate to break it to you, Mike, but that was the whole idea since the beginning: To allow them to take our liberties for NO good reason.

    3. ....because the fucking program isn't even doing what we're all supposed to believe it was designed to do!

      The program is doing exactly what is designed to do, keep track of larger trends towards undermining the existing political hierarchy and nipping those in the bud. If they stumble into something that looks vaguely terroristy from overseas well that's just a bonus

      No one here really think that they give a rats ass about the Tsarnaev bros or the Newtown shooter (not that they would have been looking at the kid anyway)....those types are valuable. When they twist off and consume the news cycle for a month it empowers the fucks in DC.

      PRISM is designed to look inward not outward.

    4. I have noticed this, but I am not quite as cynical/paranoid as others in this thread. I suspect that what happened was political correctness. Nobody wanted to OK a program to just snoop on (say) people with Muslim names, mosque attendees, and people on Free Palestine mailing lists. That would be the mortal sin of "profiling," which we are always told is terribly evil and that no good can ever come of it. Better to just snoop on everyone equally, because it's more "fair."

      1. Yeah, profiling is only OK for drone strikes.

    5. Maybe. The program may have actually stopped some terror plot from materializing, but we wouldn't know about it. I have a feeling it hasn't, though, or the Feds would have probably brought it up as a way of defending the program.

      1. This reminds me of the Obama comment that the program has stopped a terror plot. Yea, fucking right. With this egotist in office, we would have heard about any success for months.

  3. Alex Jones loses temper on BBC

    It's the worst nightmare of a conspiracy theorist - the stuff you've been peddling turns out to be true, MSM catch on, and now you need to find something new and even more outrageous in order not to lose your audience.

    1. Aaronovich told Jones after the show that British viewers didn't like shouters... No wonder Britain's so screwed-up, the "subjects" of the empire must never watch parliment!

  4. And, they are forbidden to tell targeted users, civil liberties advocates or the public at large aything about such orders.

    This is the part that boggles my mind, and also seems like the most straightforward problem to fix:

    No court anywhere should be entitled to impose a gag order on any defendant or witness. Problem solved.

    1. If you've nothing to hide, why should you worry about exercising your first amendment privilege? /securitystatist

  5. News reports make it clear that many companies not only cooperated with the NSA, but even modified their systems to allow government spooks easier access to data.

    That's because Obama is so dreamy! I mean, what he asked us to do couldn't be bad, or could it?

    1. Obozo's made a habit of hanging out in SV; IIRC, the latest trip this week is the 20th.
      Certainly no lack of contact.

  6. Just remember that the PRISM program isn't the same PRISM program developed by Palantir for keeping track of financial transactions with an eye toward uncovering money laundering and drug dealing and fraud - that's a completely different group. Palantir wants you to know that they aren't that group of scumbags, they're this group of scumbags:

    Palantir has found itself under scrutiny for civil liberties violations before. When intruders from the hacker group Anonymous gained access to thousands of emails stored on the servers of the security firm HB Gary Federal, the emails revealed that Palantir had worked with HB Gary Federal to develop proposals for attacking WikiLeaks' infrastructure, blackmailing its supporters and identifying donors. The company quickly apologized for its role in the plan and cut ties with HB Gary Federal.

    And nothing else happened.

  7. Delendo est Washingtonu.

    1. I think you mean Washingtonensis delenda est.

      1. Romanes Eunt Domus!

  8. keep in mind that much of the tech industry is happy to pal around with the politicians who administer the security state.

    They don't call them rent-seekers for nothing!

    Talk about regulation capture... What? Don't you think that this tango the tech companies are dancing with the NSA and other government agencies will not bring them some advantage over their competition at any time new regs are drafted by Congress or those same agencies?

    1. Certainly something GOP oilmen know something about.

      I noticed the Dem dominated CA legislature voted to allow fracking this past week. Amazing times these are.

      1. Well being broke had free market outcomes.

        1. Yup, and even blind squirrels find nuts sometimes.

      2. I noticed the Dem dominated CA legislature voted to allow fracking this past week. Amazing times these are.

        Amazing the compromises one will make when finances really start to get tight. Truly amazing.


        1. Christfag yourself. I don't believe in voodoo.

          1. PS: CHRISTFAG

          2. Why not? Baron Samedi is pretty much like Obama, just cooler.

              1. And transoceanic squirrels.

                1. I'd vote for that guy!

          3. Palin's Buttplug| 6.9.13 @ 2:37PM |#
            ..."I don't believe in voodoo."

            Except for every one of your posts here, dipshit.

      3. I noticed the Dem dominated CA legislature voted to allow fracking this past week.

        A slightly more accurate line would be:
        CA Republicans exert what little power they have to defeat fracking moratorium bill.

        The bill was defeated 24-37. All 25 Republicans voted no. The Democrats voted 24-12 (with 18 abstentions).

        1. you mean PB left out certain details?

        2. Oh! Shreek lies!

  9. Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me dude, I like it. Wow.


  10. Hmmm, not quite sure what to make of this. Over the last couple of days, the liberal media has been reporting that this Judge Vinson may be connected to the Koch Brothers and one of their libertarian foundations.

    Personally, Vinson doesn't exactly strike me as much of a libertarian; what kind of libertarian approves every single wiretap request the federal government makes?

    If the Kochs are indeed connected to this shady judge somehow, I think Reason kind of owes us an explanation as to exactly what the deal is.

    1. U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, who signed an order requiring Verizon to give the National Security Agency telephone records for tens of millions of American customers, attended an expense-paid judicial seminar sponsored by a libertarian think tank that featured lectures from a vocal proponent of executive branch powers.

      It just sounds like he attended a free seminar that dealt with issues his job concerned him with.

      1. Why would a libertarian think tank be holding seminars featuring speakers who are "vocal proponents of executive branch powers?"

        1. That was referring to Eric Posner who, like it or not, is a fairly big voice on such matters.

          According to the article the seminar featured speakers on both sides of the issue regarding executive power and checks and balances.

          1. OK, I guess that's innocuous enough.

        2. Since the trip was from the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment, which promotes "free-market environmentalism" and regularly invites federal judges to attend educational seminars, this makes some sense.


          Oh, and Judge Vinson was the district judge that ruled Obamacare unconstitutional in its entirety. That probably helped.


        3. So really, this seems to be a nonissue. Salon's article doesn't say anything that actually casts suspicion on the association, it just uses news of the association in the headlines and first paragraph to imply there's something funny going on.

          Daily Kos, on the other hand, actively promotes the conspiracy angle:

          It's Official: FISA Judge Vinson was on the take

          Summary? KOOOOOOOOCCCHHHHHHHH!!1!!1!1!

    2. Hmmm, not quite sure what to make of this. Over the last couple of days, the liberal media has been reporting that this Judge Vinson may be connected to the Koch Brothers and one of their libertarian foundations.

      Well, the guy who leaked the info also may be a libertarian.

      Q: Why Hong Kong?

      A: "I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom. Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech...A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party."

      He seems to really value freedom and voted for a third party. He could be some kind of socialist or Green Party or something. I'm not sure. I'd love if this guy is a libertarian, since, once again, we'd be the only ones even trying to keep government abuses of power in check.

      1. Also, look at this:

        Q: Washington-based foreign affairs analyst Steve Clemons said he overheard at the capital's Dulles airport four men discussing an intelligence conference they had just attended. Speaking about the leaks, one of them said, according to Clemons, that both the reporter and leaker should be "disappeared". How do you feel about that?

        A: "Someone responding to the story said 'real spies do not speak like that'. Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process ? they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general."

        How could anyone distrust the government and think that they don't have our best interests at heart? The seem to hire really swell guys.

    1. David Sirota: Instead of a War on Public School Teachers, How About a War on Inequality?

      Take it easy on Dave....he's still grieving that the Tsarnaev brothers weren't the toothless Duke boys (Earl and Richie).


      (man...that never gets old)

    2. i'm sure we have already done what Sirota suggests re: a War on Poverty and by damn near ever measure possible, the intended "beneficiaries" are worse off.

    3. I posted that link the other day and nobody seemed to notice.... [runs away, sobbing]

    4. "I'd been aware of the White Student Union since its inception the semester before, having encouraged my students to participate in the group's meetings. (If they disrupted the agenda by overwhelming the message of exclusivity with one of inclusion ? I wasn't going to complain.)"

      If they were disrupted in this way, maybe they could all pick up and join the Black Student Union and disrupt *them.* No, that would violate freedom of association.

  11. Oh boy, there's some big breaking news: Glenn Greenwald's source has apparently voluntarily come forward. His name is Edward Snowden, a 29 year old contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton.

    You're a very courageous man Mr. Snowden. If I were you I'd disappear for a very long time. Good luck to you son, you're going to need it.

    1. Ya I would be making that announcement from Ecuador after making buds with the locals there. Or Thailand, and then bounce to the jungle for a while.

    2. Apparently he moved to Hong Kong.

      1. Smart move. He SHOULD be okay there, but you can't underestimate how evil and vindictive this administration is.

      2. Idk, Siberia, Mongolia, Myanmar, or Detroit look promising when dropping that bomb

  12. Corporate America makes me sick!


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