There is No “Direct Access”

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

The Director of National Intelligence and the president himself have indicated that the Prism story published by the Washington Post included inaccuracies, but now Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, has said in explicit terms that there is no secret, clandestine “back-door” into their servers. There is no “direct access.”

Dear Google users—

You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.

First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.

Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period.

Compliance with legally-binding requests for specific information approved by the FISA court is an entirely different thing than providing sweeping, direct access to a database. The latter carries with it gross implications that may not be accurate.

From the beginning the notion that the government has been provided “direct access” to the servers of tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple has seemed suspect to me and something written by a person who doesn’t understand what that would entail.

At this point, I haven’t seen proof that such a route into the databases of the tech world exists. If there is one, it’s not something the likes of Google and Apple are aware of or voluntarily participating in. And, call me crazy, but I think their engineers would probably have a better understanding of that than reporters at the Washington Post or their inside source.

It seems more likely to me that what their source is referring to is the practice of mining publicly-available information, that is information you’re already sharing across social networks and public domains, to look for key words and patterns. A technique already employed by your favorite retailers, marketing agencies, publishers, and even political campaigns.

The alternative is that the Director of National Intelligence, President Obama, and each tech company named by the Washington Post (who have all issued denials) are lying. And I’m simply not inclined to believe that at this time. I’ve been given no reason to. And I would invite those who do believe they’re all lying to say so explicitly.

I’m sure it won’t be very long until their inside source is discovered and we know more about the situation.

Update… The Washington Post has changed their story. via Business Insider

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 their servers.

The latter change is subtle, but important. 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 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 skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, seems inaccurate.

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.

Update… Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also issued a statement.

I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.

When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.

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  • Razor

    This will not persuade tinfoil hatters. Nor will it remove the smug cloud around Greenwald.

  • i_a_c

    What a shame–to think that this was another Greenwaldgasm in the making. Too bad.

  • Kitty Smith

    Butbut this only prives that drones are spying on us becuase they wouldn’t tell use they were spying on us if they were spying on us so that means they’re spying on us and did I mention drones?

  • js hooper

    Seems like my natural instinct not to flip the fuck out over stories like this served me well.

    I’m sure I will be deemed an authority loving Obamabot for not demanding impeachment before all the details came out.

    Now just like with Benghazi, it comes down to emotions and political predisposition. Some firebaggers will continue to freak the fuck out over this no matter if all the pieces get debunked.If you hate Pres.Obama and are invested in the “Obama is worse than Bush” agenda, then NOTHING will stop you from pushing that line. You just quietly ignore this evidence and loudly move on to the next OUTRAGE!!!

    Any denials simply prove that it’s a CONSPIRACY !!!!

  • js hooper

    If you check out reddit and other sites they are hailing Greenwald as a Hero and comparing Pres.Obama to Hitler. Seems like Greenwald got exactly what he desired out of this story whether most of it gets picked apart and debunked or not. Any clarifications or corrections will get swept under the rug and the OUTRAGE will be all that lasts.

  • js hooper

    2 interesting nuggets I just discovered regarding this story.

    1) This story is nearly 10yrs old and was reported on way back in 2006 by the USA Today

    2) The details of the Power Point presented by Greenwald are comically inaccurate if not an outright fabrication. In the documents he released… allegedly this MASSIVE program only costs $20 million dollars a year. How on earth could the NSA maintain such a ridiculously large database for such a tiny cost. These tech giants spend BILLIONS on their datacenters. There is no way you could collect all that data for $20 million.

    Something doesn’t smell right. This might turn out to be the Benghazi emails all over again.

  • drsquid

    The single anonymous source strikes again. How many more times is this going to happen before we wise up that that’s not journalism?

    • Cobbesca

      Yeah fuck the single anonymous source. I’m looking at you Daniel Ellsberg.

      • drsquid

        Uh, I don’t believe that Daniel Ellsberg qualifies as “anonymous”. Nor did a shit ton of actual documentation.

        Try again, moron.

        • Cobbesca

          Touché. Meant Deep Throat. Back to the salient point: Yeah fuck the single anonymous source.

  • trgahan

    and I am sure the Sunday news shows will only be talking about “Why is the President spying on us?!?” and not about the fact original story has required so much post publication editing and correction.