PRISM reports prompt tech giants to push for transparency

As fury over PRISM mounts, Google, Facebook, and other tech companies are asking the government for permission to disclose information about secret national security requests they have received. Google insists it has 'nothing to hide' from its users.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
The National Security Agency, whose headquarters stands at Fort Meade, Md., can pull photos, emails, and documents from nine firms under a secret program, PRISM. Several tech giants, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, are asking for permission to tell the public what security requests they have received.

In the wake of reports that the National Security Agency collected data from companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, tech giants ensnared in the debacle are pushing to publicly disclose information about what they have been asked to turn over.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, government agencies can demand that companies turn over data without companies being able to disclose that they received such requests. The secrecy binding the companies has helped stir up a storm of accusations that tech giants are indiscriminately handing over non-US citizens’ information to the government through a clandestine NSA program, PRISM.

Vehemently denying their willing participation in PRISM and trying to reel back a potential fallout among users, several tech giants published statements asking for permission to disclose more information about FISA requests. Each of the statements underlined one message: that the companies, far from giving the NSA “direct access” to their users’ photos, e-mails, and documents, strive to protect users’ privacy.

Google led the wave Tuesday morning, publishing a letter asking Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to grant it permission to share how many national security requests it has received.

“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,” David Drummond, chief legal officer of Google, wrote in Google’s blog.

Soon after, Microsoft and Facebook followed suit. Microsoft said in a statement that “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.”

Whether the Department of Justice would grant companies’ disclosure requests remained unclear Wednesday. But the nine tech firms implicated in PRISM hope to cool the outrage of their users, some of whom took to Twitter — notably absent from PRISM’s list of targets — to slam the companies.

“So disgusting that there is so much money being made through the evisceration of our democracy,” one user, “CarmineMac,” tweeted Monday.

Others created parody Twitter accounts, with “PRISM_NSA” throwing a jab at companies implicated in the scandal by tweeting, “Well, I guess at this point there’s no reason not to set up a Twitter account.”

Elsewhere on the Web, computer users demanded an explanation from CEOs. They said there has been a major breach of trust among users, and that companies must show they are committed to being transparent about their exchanges with the NSA.

Noting the disparity between companies’ denials of voluntary participation in PRISM and the government’s confirmation of the program’s existence, the Electronic Frontier Foundation — an organization advocating privacy and civil liberties — said companies must “set the record straight” with their users.

“Your public statement of denial is a good first step, but in order to win back the trust of your users worldwide, denials are not enough,” the foundation said in an online petition. “If your company wants to clear its name, you must call for a full public accounting of America’s secret spying programs.”

Facebook has already issued a statement in that spirit, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling PRISM “outrageous” in a public Facebook post.

“We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. “It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.”

While some people praised the CEO, others criticized his statement, saying that they had lost their faith in Facebook's commitment to protecting users' privacy.

The public backlash has perhaps lent momentum to companies' request for transparency: Google and its counterparts maintain that if they were allowed to publish the scope and the aggregate numbers of national security requests they received, they would be able to show the public that they can still be trusted.

“Google has nothing to hide,” Mr. Drummond said in his blog post.

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