“Direct Access” didn’t mean no access. “Back door” didn’t mean no door. “Only in accordance with the law” didn’t mean PRISM is illegal. And you didn’t need to have heard of a codename to have participated. Larry, Zuck, you didn’t spell out your denials of the NSA’s data spying program in plain English, and now we know why. You were obligated to help the government in its spying, but were muzzled.
[Update: This article and its headline have been edited, see explanation below.]
The New York Times says you knowingly participated in the NSA’s data monitoring program. In some cases, you were asked to create “a locked mailbox and give the government the key”, to allow it to peer into private communications and web activity. Even if the exact words of your denials were accurate, they seemed to obscure the scope of your involvement with PRISM. Outlining as clearly as possible exactly what kind of data the government could attain would have gone a long way.
But you were probably cornered by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act restrictions about what you could say about PRISM. And in fact, you might have beeen subtly trying to fight back by asking the government for more transparency. When you decode Mark’s statement “We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe”, I hear “Our hands are cuffed. Only the government can reveal that we participated. We wish they would.”
Sadly, you really were working with the NSA to give it access to our private data, so your supposedly candid statements full of technicalities just broke our hearts, as the truth has come to light.
The terms you used disguised what was going on. Direct access means unrestricted access with no intermediary, but the government didn’t need to be standing in the server rooms to get what it wanted. A back door means access to data without its host’s knowledge or consent, but you were well aware of the NSA’s snooping. The NSA’s actions are likely protected by law, so saying you’re only honoring prying that’s legal didn’t mean no prying. And why would the government tell you the juicy codename or details of its data spying program? All it had to say is it needed your data.
Now these excuses ring hollow. The average citizen doesn’t know the difference. They heard “we didn’t help the NSA”, and you did, so their trust in you has disintegrated.
That’s a threat to your business, and our way of life. I like that all my friends use Google Docs. I like that I can invite any of my friends to a Facebook Event. Seeing them ditch the building blocks of the web you’ve developed because they don’t believe anything you say anymore will be a great inconvenience. And that inconvenience pales in importance to the actual liberty PRISM strips away from us.
Then again, your silence would have been taken as an admission of guilt. What an awful position our government put you in.
[Update 12:45am PST 6/8/13: This article and its headline have been edited as I think the title “Doublespeak Denials Of Prism Participation Were Careful Lies” went a bit far. The execs weren’t lying, but by denying specifics rather than discussing their participation in PRISM on a high level, I think they obscured their involvement. However, their companies are legally required to provide private information requested by the government, and were legally restricted in how they could explain the process, so I feel the blame rests more on the NSA than the tech giants. For more information, read my follow-up “Tech Giants Built Segrated Systems For NSA Instead Of Firehoses To Protect Innocent Users From PRISM“]