Dissecting Big Tech's Denial of Involvement in NSA's PRISM Spying Program

Apple, Google and more deny providing direct access surveillance program.

June 7, 2013, 2:30 PM

June 7, 2013 — -- The National Security Agency and the FBI have been tapping into the servers of nine technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo, to collect audio, video, photographs, e-mails and other documents under a program code-named PRISM, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The tech companies have responded to questions about the story with statements that may leave out as much as they say.

All the major technology companies named in the Post's report have adamantly denied that they gave the government full access to their servers in similar prepared statements.

President Obama said today that members of Congress have repeatedly been informed of the programs.

"The relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs," he said. "These are programs that have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so, I think, at the outset, it's important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing."

Obama added that data being collected on emails and Internet activity targeted foreign nationals and not U.S. citizens.

The tech companies released the following prepared statements to the media denying involvement in the program.

The Statements

Apple: "We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."

Microsoft: "We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

Google: "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."

Google's CEO Larry Page released a blog post on Friday again denying knowledge of the program.

"We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law," said Page.

Facebook: "Protecting the privacy of our users and their data is a top priority for Facebook. We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released an additional statement on Friday, saying Facebook "hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday."

Yahoo: "Yahoo takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."

Paltalk: "We have not heard of PRISM. Paltalk exercises extreme care to protect and secure users' data, only responding to court orders as required to by law. Paltalk does not provide any government agency with direct access to its servers."

AOL: "We do not have any knowledge of the Prism program. We do not disclose user information to government agencies without a court order, subpoena or formal legal process, nor do we provide any government agency with access to our servers."

Dissecting The Wording and What They Can't Say

The similarity in all the statements was clear. All mentioned that they would only comply with orders for requests to access information if forced to do so under the law and that they did not provide "back door" or "direct" access to their servers and to user account information.

Experts believe that commonality in statements could mean a few things. The first is that the companies simply can't talk about it.

"If these companies received an order under the FISA amendments act, they are forbidden by law from disclosing having received the order and disclosing any information about the order at all," Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told ABC News.

Rumold is involved with lawsuits with the NSA and the Department of Justice about other wiretapping cases.

John Black, an assistant professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado, shared a similar opinion.

"Many times these laws say they have to comply and they can't disclose their compliance," Black said.

However, the companies are talking about it, not simply saying "no comment." Apple, Facebook and Paltalk even specifically said they had never heard of PRISM.

Rumold said that could be a technicality.

"Apple might have had no idea of the government's code name for the program, which was PRISM," Rumold said. "What Apple didn't say is that, 'We have never given the NSA access to our data.'"

Google, on the other hand, said there was no back door to its servers.

"Back door at Google might have one meaning, but what they didn't say is they aren't giving the NSA widespread access to data, which they could potentially say if they had not received an order and given the NSA access to their data," Rumold said.

Black echoed a similar thought about the wording "direct access" and the "back door" phrase.

"They seem consistently careful in saying we don't give back-door access to the government servers," Black said. "That's not the same thing as saying the government has no way to access any of our data."

Black suggested that maybe the NSA doesn't have far-reaching or direct access to the servers, but the companies don't deny that the government can get information through some sort of shared servers when they have a court order.

Marc Ambinder, author of "Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry," told ABC News something similar.

PRISM is, in part, a software system that allows the government to sift through large amounts of data in different formats, he said. When the Internet companies came on board, as the leaked document showed, it required them to make their data compatible with the system.

That doesn't mean all data coming from, say, Apple or Google would be readable through the PRISM system. It just means that when a court order was granted, there was a system already in existence that allowed the government to intake and immediately use the data Apple or Google provided in compliance with a FISA court order.

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a written statement that the Post report and another on phone surveillance by The Guardian contained "numerous inaccuracies," and that the data collection only targeted non-Americans outside the United States.

President Obama today stressed that members of Congress repeatedly have been informed of the programs.

"The programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they're classified, but they're not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," he said.

Still, both Black and Rumold said it was highly unlikely that the technology companies wouldn't have been informed of the programs.

"Google is probably the biggest collection of information on Earth. It would be shocking to me that the NSA wasn't attempting with all its power to get access to Google," Rumold said. "Google might have very well fought a valiant and difficult fight to keep the NSA away from it, but there is only so much it can do as an American company if you get a valid United States court order."

And that's where Google CEO Page makes the point about making these programs more transparent.

"Finally, this episode confirms what we have long believed -- there needs to be a more transparent approach," he said in the blog post released Friday. "Google has worked hard, within the confines of the current laws, to be open about the data requests we receive."

ABC News' Abby Phillip contributed to this report.

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