Last week we saw that whistlebower Edward Snowden's claims about a so-called Prism program looked full of holes.
Sure, you could hear guests on the Sunday morning network talk shows still railing about the government getting right inside your computer, but cooler heads have explained that Prism is essentially an analytical tool for examining data obtained through the court system.
Importantly, Google, Facebook, and the rest of the big technology companies unequivocally denied any knowledge of the program. Now Snowden says they're manipulating the truth. In a Q&A with the Guardian, he said:
Their denials went through several revisions as it become more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies. As a result of these disclosures and the clout of these companies, we're finally beginning to see more transparency and better details about these programs for the first time since their inception.
The "transparency" refers to further information about government data requests. Unfortunately for Snowden, these disclosures don't help his case. Certainly the volume of these requests may appear startling. For the second half of 2012:
- Apple received 4,000-5,000 requests.
- Facebook received up to 10,000.
- Google received 8,400.
- Microsoft received 6,000-7,000.
Perhaps that's a sign that government agencies are casting a broad net, but Facebook, for example, claims to have 1.11 billion active users. Whichever way you look at it, the government seems to be interested in less than 0.01 percent of what's happening in Zuckerberg's domain.
Google's transparency report makes it clear that the 8,400 figure relates to all government data requests, not some special Prism program. Presumably, the "secret surveillance" makes up a subset of this activity.
Snowden may be doing his best to explain himself, but questions like this don't help:
If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?
You don't need to be a lawyer to answer that one. Most of those 8,400 requests to Google came in the form of subpoenas. Ignore a subpoena, and you will find yourself in contempt of court and subject to a fine (at least). These companies can afford a few fines, but they can't make contempt of court a way of life. More importantly, why should they?
Snowden talks about the companies' ethical obligations, but according to Apple, at least, most requests came from "police investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer's disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide."
The former Booz Allen Hamilton analyst seems to be protesting the entire system of court-orderd document and data disclosures. That is surely overreaching.
As for the original headline-grabbing claim about the government "tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies," there now seems to be no reason to believe that it's true.
— Kim Davis , Senior Editor, Internet Evolution