How the NSA Almost Killed the InternetPosted: January 7, 2014
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the other tech titans have had to fight for their lives against their own government. An exclusive look inside their year from hell—and why the Internet will never be the same.
Christoph Niemann writes: On June 6, 2013, Washington Post reporters called the communications departments of Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other Internet companies. The day before, a report in the British newspaper The Guardian had shocked Americans with evidence that the telecommunications giant Verizon had voluntarily handed a database of every call made on its network to the National Security Agency. The piece was by reporter Glenn Greenwald, and the information came from Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old IT consultant who had left the US with hundreds of thousands of documents detailing the NSA’s secret procedures.
Greenwald was the first but not the only journalist that Snowden reached out to. The Post’s Barton Gellman had also connected with him. Now, collaborating with documentary filmmaker and Snowden confidante Laura Poitras, he was going to extend the story to Silicon Valley. Gellman wanted to be the first to expose a top-secret NSA program called Prism. Snowden’s files indicated that some of the biggest companies on the web had granted the NSA and FBI direct access to their servers, giving the agencies the ability to grab a person’s audio, video, photos, emails, and documents. The government urged Gellman not to identify the firms involved, but Gellman thought it was important. “Naming those companies is what would make it real to Americans,” he says. Now a team of Post reporters was reaching out to those companies for comment.
It would be the start of a chain reaction that threatened the foundations of the industry. The subject would dominate headlines for months and become the prime topic of conversation in tech circles. For years, the tech companies’ key policy issue had been negotiating the delicate balance between maintaining customers’ privacy and providing them benefits based on their personal data. It was new and controversial territory, sometimes eclipsing the substance of current law, but over time the companies had achieved a rough equilibrium that allowed them to push forward. The instant those phone calls from reporters came in, that balance was destabilized, as the tech world found itself ensnared in a fight far bigger than the ones involving oversharing on Facebook or ads on Gmail. Over the coming months, they would find themselves at war with their own government, in a fight for the very future of the Internet.
It wasn’t just revenue at stake. So were the very ideals that had sustained the TECH WORLD since the birth of the INTERNET.
But first they had to figure out what to tell the Post. “We had 90 minutes to respond,” says Facebook’s head of security, Joe Sullivan. No one at the company had ever heard of a program called Prism. And the most damning implication—that Facebook and the other companies granted the NSA direct access to their servers in order to suck up vast quantities of information—seemed outright wrong. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was taken aback by the charge and asked his executives whether it was true. Their answer: no.
Similar panicked conversations were taking place at Google, Apple, and Microsoft. “We asked around: Are there any surreptitious ways of getting information?” says Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel. “No.”
Nevertheless, the Post published its report that day describing the Prism program. (The Guardian ran a similar story about an hour later.) The piece included several images leaked from a 41-slide NSA PowerPoint, including one that listed the tech companies that participated in the program and the dates they ostensibly began fully cooperating. Microsoft came first, in September 2007, followed the next year by Yahoo. Google and Facebook were added in 2009. Most recent was Apple, in October 2012. The slide used each company’s corporate logo. It was like a sales force boasting a series of trophy contracts. Just a day earlier, the public had learned that Verizon and probably other telephone companies had turned over all their call records to the government. Now, it seemed, the same thing was happening with email, search history, even Instagram pictures.
The tech companies quickly issued denials that they had granted the US government direct access to their customers’ data. But that stance was complicated by the fact that they did participate—often unwillingly—in a government program that required them to share data when a secret court ordered them to do so. Google and its counterparts couldn’t talk about all the details, in part because they were legally barred from full disclosure and in part because they didn’t know all the details about how the program actually worked. And so their responses were seen less as full-throated denials than mealy-mouthed contrivances…
- Annus Horribilis 2013: NSA’s Awful Year in Retrospect (matthewaid.com)
- Snowden Says ‘Mission’s Already Accomplished’ – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- Just Two Words From Apple On The NSA’s iPhone Hacking Show How The Tech Community Now Hates The NSA (AAPL) (businessinsider.com)
- How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet (downes.ca)
- Yes, Of Course NSA is Collecting Metadata from Members of Congress (thedailybanter.com)
- Here’s what we learned about the NSA’s spying programs in 2013 (washingtonpost.com)
- The Criminal NSA – Is Edward Snowden a hero or traitor? (sott.net)
- The Limits of Impunity for Activist Hacker “Journalism” and Jacob Appelbaum (3dblogger.typepad.com)