When government officials came to Silicon Valley to demand easier ways for the world’s largest Internet companies to turn over user data as part of a secret surveillance program, the companies bristled. In the end, though, many cooperated at least a bit.
Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant, according to people briefed on the negotiations. They opened discussions with national security officials about developing technical methods to more efficiently and securely share the personal data of foreign users in response to lawful government requests. And in some cases, they changed their computer systems to do so.
The negotiations shed a light on how Internet companies, increasingly at the center of people’s personal lives, interact with the spy agencies that look to their vast trove of information — e-mails, videos, online chats, photos and search queries — for intelligence. They illustrate how intricately the government and tech companies work together, and the depth of their behind-the-scenes transactions.
The companies that negotiated with the government include Google, which owns YouTube; Microsoft, which owns Hotmail and Skype; Yahoo; Facebook; AOL; Apple; and Paltalk, according to one of the people briefed on the discussions. The companies were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the content of FISA requests or even acknowledging their existence.
In at least two cases, at Google and Facebook, one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said.
… Each of the nine companies said it had no knowledge of a government program providing officials with access to its servers, and drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers.
The companies said they do, however, comply with individual court orders, including under FISA. The negotiations, and the technical systems for sharing data with the government, fit in that category because they involve access to data under individual FISA requests. And in some cases, the data is transmitted to the government electronically, using a company’s servers.
“The U.S. government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers,” Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, and its chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement on Friday. “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”
Statements from Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, AOL and Paltalk made the same distinction.
But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.
The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.
Tech companies might have also denied knowledge of the full scope of cooperation with national security officials because employees whose job it is to comply with FISA requests are not allowed to discuss the details even with others at the company, and in some cases have national security clearance, according to both a former senior government official and a lawyer representing a technology company."