The initial reports about the National Security Agency’s Internet data-collection program, PRISM, said that the government was “tapping directly into the central servers” of Google, Facebook, and other massive Internet companies to gather information and spy on users.
The companies immediately denied this.
The denials led to privacy fanatics, conspiracy theorists, and some journalists accusing the companies of lying–or at least “parsing” their denials so carefully that the claim might still be true.
The denials also, however, led to one of the publications that broke the story–the Washington Post–changing its story.
And now, for the first time, according to Amir Efrati of the Wall Street Journal, Google has explained exactly how it fulfils government data requests (all of which require court orders and attorney approval):
1. Google sends the government an electronic file via secure File Transfer Protocol (a standard way of sending stuff over the Internet.)
2. Google prints the data out on paper and sends it to the government in boxes.
Neither of those methods involve the government having “direct access” to Google’s servers.
The government has apparently asked Google whether it can install data-receiving equipment on Google’s premises (another claim made by the National Security Agency document that was the source of the “direct access” claim) or install government software on Google’s computers.
Google has said “no.”
Yes, it is still conceivable that the government has illegally hacked into Google’s systems and is stealing user data.
But that’s not what the National Security Agency presentation that was the source for the “direct access” report claimed. The NSA presentation strongly implied that companies like Google were participating in the PRISM program voluntarily.
This new information should finally end the contention that the government has “direct access” to Google’s servers or is “directly tapping into” Google’s servers.
Facebook, Yahoo, and other companies named in the original spying report have also flatly denied giving the government access to their servers.
So unless you believe that all of these companies are still flat-out lying and/or that the government is illegally breaking into their systems, we can finally put this “direct access” claim to bed.
(Whether the government is “intercepting” communications sent over Google, Facebook, and other systems by tapping into Internet gateways is another question. Based on some other reports and leaked data, it seems that the government might well be doing this. But to be fair to the big companies that were just implicated in the initial spying reports, this “interception” does not appear to be happening in their servers.)
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