Google, Facebook and others are being way too timid on NSA’s business-killing PRISM program

The timid response of Google and other Silicon Valley Internet giants to news of the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance scheme has turned the land of go-big-or-go-home into the land of too-little-too-late.

It’s admirable that Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft are now asking the feds to let them tell us all more about how much information they give over to intelligence officials. (Apple as always is an outlier, declining to even comment on Google’s request of the NSA, let alone endorse it.) Here’s Google’s letter to the feds.

Google assures us that it’s a relatively tiny amount and that government does not have direct access to the truckloads of personal data it collects on its customers.

The company’s top legal eagle, David Drummond, had this to say in Google’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller:

“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.

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”

Nice start. But these companies need to join with — in fact they should think about leading — the civil rights groups and others that are calling for an open and full investigation into just what is going on here.

The so-called StopWatching.Us campaign also calls for changes to the spying laws and appropriate action against government officials who have engaged in unconstitutional surveillance.

Who would be better to lead the charge than global corporations with nearly limitless resources? Their profits and cash hoards are huge. They talk about making the world a better place. This would be a start.

In fact, you have to wonder why these Internet powerhouses didn’t earlier demand permission to explain their role in our nation’s intelligence gathering machinery

True, it’s a tricky business. Certain disclosures are against the law. But think about the power these companies wield. Surely they could have put up a fuss through a friendly Congress member or some other back channel.

Coming forward now that former analyst Edwin Snowden (Here’s Fox News’ latest on him) has leaked some details of the data dragnet, gives the appearance that Internet companies are acting only to save their reputations and their businesses.

And make no mistake: The privacy questions raised by the PRISM program are a business killer for corporations who base their businesses on gathering as much personal information as possible from each and every one of us.

A week ago, you might not have given a second thought to Google’s $1 billion (reportedly) purchase of Waze, a commuting app that keeps track of traffic flow by using the GPS in our smart phones to track who is where.

Suddenly, the idea’s cool factor is replaced by the yuck factor.

And the business damage doesn’t stop with American consumers. The NSA has tried to reassure us by explaining that it is only mining the data of foreign nationals. What reassures us, sets those living in other countries on edge.

Michael S. Malone, a journalist and author who’s covered Silicon Valley for decades told me in an email this week that citizens and governments around the world are no doubt reassessing their relationship with U.S. Internet companies that are helping the U.S. government spy on them.

“I think Valley companies have now done themselves terrible damage, because their business was based upon users — especially international users and governments — to put their faith in the American values of these companies,” Malone wrote. ” They got screwed — and now have grounds for turning off access to Facebook, Google, et al in the name of protecting their citizens.  This is going to hurt.”

In fact, it all makes the sudden protest of companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and the rest sound a little less courageous and a little more hollow.

(Photo courtesy of Google, provided by the Associated Press)


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  • Chuck Karish

    Mike Cassidy, if these companies were pursuing the back-channel solutions you suggest, do you think you’d know what they were doing? You’ve reported as if you know that they’re not doing this.

    • Mike Cassidy

      I probably didn’t flesh that thought out well enough. What I had in mind was working with a sympathetic legislator, say someone like Sen. Ron Wyden. He’s found a way to talk publicly, if somewhat cryptically, about some of this stuff. He’d be a good one to go public with the Internet companies’ request in order to pressure the NSA and CIA to agree or at least defend their behavior. The other reason that points to the improbability that these companies have been working back channels is that to date they have gotten nothing done. These are not companies that get nothing done.

  • george orwell

    Move to Canada. Easy. Better for the servers. Its colder. No NSA there. Blackberry has no such problems.

    Serve the corrupt politicians right. they will lose silicon valley to the canadians.

    Seriously. Its not that hard to do. Sell a few buildings in a hot market. Buy a new campus for half the price.