New and Improved Facebook and Google Statements on PRISM Still Have Some Holes

Rebecca Greenfield
June 7, 2013
New and Improved Facebook and Google Statements on PRISM Still Have Some Holes

After denying involvement in PRISM — the government program that allegedly works with major Internet companies to collect (some) U.S. citizen dataGoogle and Facebook have both again, more clearly and vehemently denied involvement in the program. This time, instead of a "spokesperson" relaying the news, the CEOs themselves, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, went on record giving nearly the exact same denials of involvement with the NSA — one of the many questionable aspects of their remarks. "We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday," said Zuckerberg, echoing Page's line: "We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday." It's pretty curious that these two men happened to have the exact same talking points — and those aren't the only similarities between the two statements. 

RELATED: PRISM Companies Start Denying Knowledge of the NSA Data Collection

Facebook (emphasis ours):

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. 

Google (emphasis ours): 

First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers.

That "direct access" alibi is new to the Google statement, which yesterday only said:

Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'backdoor' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'backdoor' for the government to access private user data.

That statement with the "backdoor" reference could have implied that something other than a "backdoor" let the government in. (Perhaps for that very reason Zuckerberg doesn't even mention a backdoor, going straight to the direct access explanation.)

RELATED: NSA Spying Appears to Stem from 550-Word Section of PATRIOT Act

So, Page not only reiterated that same point with a little more vehemence and a clarification, but also added the new "direct access" clause Facebook has above hoping to further clarify it didn't cooperate with the NSA. "Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers," he said. "Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period." 

RELATED: The NSA Is Funneling Your Internet Life from Silicon Valley to Obama's Desk

That's a stronger denial than yesterday, which some took as the company using vague technology terms to skirt the issue. But it still doesn't exonerate either of the companies because the NSA neither needs a "backdoor" or "direct access" to collect the data. Google didn't need to give the government a backdoor, as the ACLU's Christopher Soghoian notes:

Google: We haven't given the government direct access to our servers. // That doesn't rule out an…

— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) June 7, 2013

Nor did either Facebook or Google need to provide "direct access" As The Week's Marc Ambinder explains:

On the “no direct access”—ISPs push to a separate server the subset of accounts that the FISC order covers; NSA monitors them in real time

— Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder) June 7, 2013

In addition, Page's disavowal that he has never heard of the program doesn't have Soghoian convinced either. The timing of when Google supposedly joined the PRISM coalition, per The Washington Post's slides, is too convenient:

Unnamed company loses FISA challenge in August 2008, Google joined PRISM 5 months later.

— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) June 7, 2013