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U.S. Intelligence Requests Put Tech Giants In A Bind


While President Obama is acknowledging that the government is tapping into records from major Internet companies, most of those companies have issued broadly worded denials. That includes Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo.

NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to explain how these companies can deny taking part in a program that both the president and the intelligence community say exists. And, Steve, first, what do these firms say exactly when they are asked about PRISM?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, there were more than a half dozen different companies named in the leaked documents that first made PRISM public. But let's just look at the statements from three of them: Apple, Google and Facebook. Apple released a statement yesterday saying, quote, "We have never heard of PRISM. 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."

Google said in part, quote, "Google does not have a backdoor for the government to access private user data." And Facebook said: We don't provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. So there are a couple of common themes here. Every technology company has said there's not some kind of giant pipe that connects their servers to the NSA and allows analysts there to search their data in real time. But they've all acknowledged that they do respond to valid court orders.

CORNISH: But, Steve, are those denials credible?

HENN: You know, I believe they are credible for a couple of reasons. Technically, creating a system that would allow for real-time monitoring and search of all the information flowing through Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple would be just an enormous undertaking. You're talking about a huge amount of information.

The stories from The Guardian and The Washington Post are based on a series of classified slides that describe in broad terms how the system works. One of the slides, it says PRISM costs roughly $20 million a year to operate. A real-time system would likely be several orders of magnitude more expensive than that.

And although the administration acknowledged that this program exists and called the leaks which revealed it reprehensible, officials said the program's activities were subject to the oversight of Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In short, they acknowledged a system that creates court orders, the kinds of court orders which all of these technology firms acknowledged, at least in general ways, that they receive.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, what are technology firms able to tell us about orders they do get from the FISA court?

HENN: Well, really nothing. At this point, tech firms can't even acknowledge that they are getting FISA orders at all. So we really have no idea how many orders like this are going out to Google or Facebook, how broad these kinds of orders might be, what kind of information the NSA might be asking for. The gag orders in place around FISA requests make reporting on a program like this really difficult and frankly make an informed public debate about it almost impossible.

Nonetheless, the tech companies I've talked to still insist that the intelligence community does not have any kind of carte blanche access to their servers or customer data that allows them in at any time.

CORNISH: Steve, looking beyond the U.S., what kind of impact is there likely to be on these companies? I mean, in Europe, especially, there's a lot of concern about privacy.

HENN: Well, absolutely. I mean, if you think about Google and Apple and Facebook, most of their customers don't live in the United States. That means that most of their customers could be subject to the kinds of foreign surveillance orders we're talking about here. So any suggestion that these firms are sort of blithely handing over consumer records to U.S. intelligence agencies is very damning.

And if you think about what it's like for them to do business in a country like Germany where consumers take privacy concerns very, very seriously, you know, the public reaction there to this story is going to be a big worry.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.