Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies’ hundreds of millions of users.
The government agencies, the Post said, were “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
This surveillance program, the Post reported, had been “knowingly” facilitated by the tech companies, which had allowed the government to tap directly into their central servers.
The Post story described a “career intelligence officer” as being so horrified by the power and privacy intrusion of this surveillance system that the officer was helping to leak the news to expose it.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly told the Post.
Not surprisingly, the Post’s story created an instant explosion of outrage. The ire was directed at both the government and the technology companies.
The story also led to immediate, explicit denials from the technology companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all said that the government did not have “direct access” to any servers. Apple said it had never even heard of the program it was supposedly partnering with.
So The Post’s claim that the companies had voluntarily given the government direct, open, un-monitored access to their servers quickly seemed suspect.
And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story.
First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies “knowingly” participated in the government spying program.
Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to its servers.
In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies’ servers.
Now, the Post no longer states this “tapping directly into the central servers” claim as a verified fact. Instead, it attributes the claim to a top-secret government presentation–a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and scepticism over the past day.
In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country’s largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies’ users in real time.
Specifically, here’s how the Washington Post story has changed…
The original first paragraph:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
The updated paragraph (our emphasis):
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
That change is important. The claim changes from a fact asserted by the Washington Post to a claim made in a document the Washington Post has seen–a document that might be wrong.
The idea that Google, Facebook, Apple, et al, had voluntarily given the government direct unfettered access to their servers always seemed far-fetched.
This behaviour would justifiably trigger the wrath of the companies’ hundreds of millions of users worldwide and exacerbate already existing concerns that these companies routinely trample all over their users’ privacy.
Furthermore, the government’s assertions that its spying programs are directed primarily at foreigners, not US citizens, would not be viewed as comforting to Google, Facebook, et al.
Because the vast majority of the users of these companies’ services are foreigners.
If the international users of Facebook, Google, et al, were to feel that the companies were opening their data centres in this way, the international users might revolt. So it’s hard to imagine that these companies would just voluntarily open their servers to the U.S. government (or, for that matter, any other government).
The Washington Post also broke the news about the existence of the vast government program Internet spying called PRISM, which other outlets have since confirmed. And the story illustrated how extensively the government uses Internet communications in its intelligence efforts and how important these communications are to national security.
But, a day after the Post story appeared, it seems likely that the following claims are wrong:
- that the NSA and FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of Facebook, Google, et al, and,
- that the government can “quite literally watch your ideas form as you type.”
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