Can Tech Companies Maintain Trust Despite Privacy Leaks?

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Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are acting quickly to save their image in the wake of a report by The Guardian last week detailing the National Security Agency’s PRISM program.

The program run by the NSA allows the U.S. government to access user information from a variety of companies at any time, having been allowed direct access to company servers. According to a top-secret document obtained by The Guardian, the NSA reports that it is able to access email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, and voice-over-IP chats such as Skype, as well as file transfers and social networking details.

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Prior to the undertaking of PRISM, the NSA was required to get a warrant to access information. The NSA viewed this as a shortcoming, and sought action which would allow them the abstain from retrieving a warrant. The program is designed to track foreign terrorists, something the NSA specifically felt was hindered by warrants. According to a presentation in the report, “Fisa [warrants were] broken broken because [they] provided privacy protections to people who were not entitled to them.” The Fisa Amendments Act was passed in December 2012 as a means to hedge the NSA’s surveillance power.

As expected, the American Civil Liberties Union has had a lot to say about the matter. Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, was baffled the government went to tech companies in the first place. “It’s shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this,” he said. “The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications.”

Debate on who to blame, though, is just beginning. PRISM-related surveillance is made possible by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which also bans companies from speaking about or even acknowledging requests made under the act.

Google has come out aggressively, showing a significant amount of frustration with the government. The company claims it complied with far fewer requests than it received, and has requested permission from the government to reveal the nature of the requests they receive for user information.

Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst studying privacy, technology and surveillance at the American Civil Liberties Union, was largely unimpressed. ”If nothing else happens, this is a way of putting the government on the defensive and shifting the blame from the companies to the government,” he said.

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However, companies are upset that government has issued a gag order as a part of the law, with Google chief legal officer David Drummond writing a letter to attorney general Eric Holder and F.B.I director. ”Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide,” he wrote.

Microsoft has published any information it is legally allowed to, while urging the government for further transparency. Facebook has indicated it would publish a transparency report if the government if the government gave it permission to report on the size and scope of the requests it receives.

According to a senior administration official, FISA does not allow for the targeting of citizens located within the U.S., stating that, “The Guardian and Washington Post articles refer to collection of communications pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States.”

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