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Tech giants deny US govt privacy probe

Mon 10 Jun 2013
FYI, this story is more than a year old

A host of American tech companies have denied helping the US government collect private customer data from as far back as 2007, as controversy plagues the industry.

Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and other US tech giants have all dismissed claims in the press recently, alleging that the companies have allowed US secret services all-access to customer content.

Labelled PRISM, the electronic surveillance program is used to monitor foreign intelligence collected from the intent and other electronic providers - classified as top secret by the US government.

The practice is alleged to have begun under the leadership of George W. Bush, with The Guardian newspaper claiming "PRISM involves: Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."

Yet with the death of privacy being touted, major tech organisations have fought back, with Microsoft leading the denials.

"We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis," the company said in a statement.

"In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.

"If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it."

Apple went one further however, insisting the company has no knowledge of the US security operation.

"We have never heard of PRISM," said Steve Dowling, spokesman, Apple.

"We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."

Reports in the US claim that the U.S. National Security Agency, along with the FBI are "tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US internet companies."

Google and Facebook as also companies implicated in the controversy, but like Microsoft and Apple, they both deny any knowledge of the operation.

"First, we have not joined any program that would give the US government – or any other government – direct access to our servers," said Larry Page, CEO, Google.

"Indeed, the US 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."

Branding the media claims as "outrageous", Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg echoed Page's opinion, calling for greater transparency within the industry.

"We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe," he said.

"It's the only way to protect everyone's civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term."

The undercover investigation shows that under the Barack Obama administration "the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing."

As a result of the news, over 20,000 Americans have signed a petition calling for the government to investigate the allegations, with the industry waiting to see whether both US officials and the companies concerned can get both sides of the story straight.

"I was assuming that these tech companies were just lying," said Bruce Schneier, security expert.

"That's the most obvious explanation."

"Could it possibly be that there's a department within these companies that hides this from the executives? Maybe.

"I don't know, we don't know. This points to the problem here.

"There's so much freaking secrecy that we don't know enough to even know what is going on."

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