NSA spying: Microsoft's reported role in Prism, Yahoo's fight, Snowden speaks and more

There has been a steady stream of reports about Prism, the NSA’s mass surveillance program, this week. Some developments of note:

• Microsoft worked with the U.S. government to provide access to its users’ communications, the Guardian has reported, based on files provided by former government tech contractor Edward Snowden. Microsoft reportedly provided the NSA with access to Outlook.com — including helping with a workaround to the company’s own encryption program to enable access to Web chats — plus Skype and SkyDrive, its cloud storage offering. The feds reportedly already had access to Hotmail, the email service that preceded Outlook.com. The NSA then shared that information with the FBI and CIA, according to the report.

If the report is true, Microsoft’s moves contradict the software giant’s oft-repeated claims that it protects users’ privacy. In fact, it has run a Scroogled campaign featuring ads accusing rival Google of compromising its users’ privacy.

Microsoft also has, along with the other tech companies mentioned in the same breath as the Prism program, denied that it has provided the government with direct access to users’ information. It reiterated those denials in a response to the Guardian’s latest revelations.

“We only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks,” the company said in a statement released Thursday.

It’s worth noting that before the rise of Google and resurgence of Apple — which comes with inevitable backlash — Microsoft was the tech company people (not all — stand down, please) loved to hate because of its dominance. The Guardian report could be a blow to its goodwill efforts.

• Also this week, Yahoo petitioned the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court to allow the release of its arguments against a 2008 court order that helped pave the way for tech companies’ (perhaps grudging) cooperation with Prism. The Sunnyvale tech company is seeking to show its users that it was trying to protect their data, but the government prevailed. As the Merc’s Brandon Bailey reported, experts say that if Yahoo gets what it asked for, it would be historic and bring to light more information about Prism. An ACLU attorney said only a few of the secretive FISA court’s opinions have been made public. As we mentioned earlier this week, some perceive the FISA court’s influence to be wide-reaching.

Mike Cassidy writes for SiliconBeat that other tech companies should follow Yahoo’s lead “and scream bloody murder” about the secrecy surrounding the scooping up of information about their users.  The government has said Prism is part of its anti-terrorism efforts, and that the leaks have damaged those efforts.

• The other tech companies reported to have been swept under the Prism umbrella are Apple, Facebook and Google. As we and many others have said, it could mean bad business for these American tech companies that rely on their users’ trust. Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist who’s considered royalty in Silicon Valley, said at this week’s tech and media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, that this could benefit foreign companies.

“It remains to be seen how big a hit,” Andreessen told Jessica Lessin, former Wall Street Journal reporter.

• Finally, Snowden appeared in public today at Sheremetyevo airport in Russia, meeting with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International representatives. In a statement he reportedly released through WikiLeaks, Snowden thanks the countries that have offered him asylum: Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. He said the United States has tried to make an example of him, “a warning to all others who might speak out as I have.” He said he was applying for asylum in Russia, because the United States has made it “impossible” for him to travel to Latin America. He also said, “that moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.”

Photo by Reuters

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4045 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of SiliconValley.com, the Mercury News tech website. Email: lsumagaysay (at) bayareanewsgroup (dot-com).