How Facebook, Google and Apple Denied PRISM As One

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After directing outrage at the government for its covert PRISM program,  most people are turning to the companies cited as cooperators. As a result, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) have been forced to respond to critics on all sides, and they have adopted almost the same stance on the issue. In effect, they’re all saying they aren’t on board, aren’t collaborators, and are just as concerned about privacy as their customers.

The Washington Post report on the government’s surveillance efforts, noting that “direct access” to the company’s servers was part of the plan. On that count, Google CEO Larry Page said reports Google is providing unfettered access “are false, period.” Mark Zuckerberg took the same position for Facebook, noting the media’ s reports were “outrageous.” Company statements from Apple also note that the company didn’t collaborate with the government on any type of spying and never heard of PRISM.

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Each of the three companies said it cooperates with investigations, but only does so under the established terms of the law. Unless a justice department official produces a warrant or other form of judge’s order, it would be illegal to force access into company records and within the company’s rights to refuse requests (Google had been in court trying to block FBI efforts to obtain data, though the company failed). So why hasn’t anyone heard of this program before now?

Part of the reason is the gag rule in effect on surveillance attempts of this kind. Under certain circumstances, companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are directed to stay quiet about government requests for information. That makes claims of not knowing about PRISM (like the one Apple made) something of a technicality. If the company knew, it couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell anyway.

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That comes back to the matter of transparency. How far will companies go to protect customers’ information? When James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, went after the Washington Post reporter who wrote the story, he said Glenn Greenwald “didn’t have a clue” about how the surveillance program worked. Greenwald replied on Twitter, “That’s why transparency’s needed.” It’s still unclear whether these companies will begin taking the fight to court on behalf of customers more often.

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