Is it comforting that government officials have come forward to say that they do not have people review the contents of the majority of wire intercepts? Instead, the vast majority of data and metadata collected by the government from telecom companies and websites is sorted by algorithms and only a small portion is ever reviewed by actual human beings. This is intended to provide some comfort, although security agencies like the NSA are collecting unprecedented and enormous amounts of data, through programs like PRISM, on individuals using telecommunication networks in the United States.
Recently, it has come to light that a court order was issued compelling the telecommunication company Verizon to release the metadata regarding millions of its customers. Metadata included, but was not necessarily limited to, originating and terminating telephone number, trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of the call.
A lot of speculation has been going around the web over the past few days surrounding how widespread and sweeping these broad requests may be. But a number of companies are coming out to respond to the allegations.
Google CEO Larry Page responded to the allegation in a blog post on Google’s blog yesterday:
“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.”
Microsoft has responded to public allegations that it has been compliant in PRISM:
“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. 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.”
Facebook to AllThingsD:
“We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law.”
Hopefully as the story plays out we will find out that the problem is not as widespread as initially alleged, but what does it mean that these companies were implicated before their involvement could be confirmed?
The public looks to social media with a slanted gaze anyway and there is always some new scandal evolving from the web across the media. Every day the distance that once separated your internet service provider, phone company, television provider, power provider, etc. grows closer and closer.
The advice of Eric Schmidt on privacy from way back in 2009 becomes more sage, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information. And it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that, that information could be made available to the authorities.”
So watch what you say, because you never know for certain who may be listening.
Joshua is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.