Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google both strongly denied giving unfettered access to user data to U.S. officials, but it turns out both companies have, in fact, cooperated with governments requests.
Zuckerberg denied his company's link to secret government data-sharing scheme PRISM on Friday in a blustery posted message that described allegations that Facebook gave 'US or any other government direct access to our servers' as 'outrageous.'
Now, sources tell the New York Times that both Facebook and Google discussed plans to create secure portals for the government 'like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information' with U.S. officials.
In his post, Zuckerberg said he had not even heard of PRISM until reports broke on Thursday and vowed to fight 'aggressively to keep [users'] information safe and secure.'
Google CEO Larry Page did likewise.
'We have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers,' he said in a statement that resembled deeply the one issued by Zuckerberg. 'We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.'
The search engine's chief lawyer David Drummond also said that media reports linking Google to PRISM were false.
'When governments ask Facebook for data,' wrote Zuckerberg, 29, 'we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law.
Zuckerberg's post has been 'liked' over 300,000 times.
Companies are legally required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to hand over whatever information the government asks for under the law.
But, as the New York Times reports, they are not required to make it easier for the government to get that information. This, however, appears to be what they've planned to do.
Meanwhile, Twitter is one company which has managed to keep mum in PRISM discussions.
A spokesperson for Apple also denied any knowledge of PRISM's existence.
It was claimed that the Silicon Valley companies involved in the PRISM program are Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Skype, AOL and the lesser known Internet company PalTalk, which has hosted a lot of traffic during the Arab Spring and the on-going Syrian civil war.
However, only Facebook and Google have been shown to have worked toward creating 'online rooms' in which to share data with the government, according to the New York Times report.
The denials come a day after President Obama delivered a passionate defense of national security programs that secretly acquire information about Americans' phone calls, saying criticism of them is all 'hype.'
He said: 'My assessment and my team's assessment was that [the programs] help us prevent terrorist attacks and that the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration [of calls] without a name attached... It was worth us doing.'
Obama made the remarks at a press conference in response to revelations about two separate programs used to spy on American citizens and foreign nationals.
One program involves the collection of U.S. Verizon customers phone records. The other program - dubbed PRISM - allows the government to scour the Internet usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of nine U.S.-based internet providers such as Microsoft and Google.
'I think it’s important to understand that you can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,' Obama said. 'We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.'
Obama said the PRISM program does not involve monitoring the email content of U.S. citizens or anyone living in the U.S., and he repeatedly stated that both programs - the phone spying and PRISM - have been approved by Congress.
'You can complain about "big brother" and how this is a potential program run amuck,' Obama added, 'but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've stuck the right balance.'
Obama said the programs have plenty of checks in place, including repeated authorizations by Congress and approval by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, to assure no abuses by the government.
'Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,' he said. 'That's not what this program's about.'
If U.S. citizens decide they want to axe the programs, Obama 'welcomes' that debate, he said. But at the same time, he expressed concern over the fact that the classified programs were leaked to the media.
'I don't welcome leaks, because there's a reason why these programs are classified,' he said.
The Washington Post reported Friday that for the past six years, U.S. intelligence agencies have been extracting audio, video, photos, e-mails, documents and other information to track people's movements and contacts.
The scandal deepened after it emerged that the Silicon Valley Internet giants may have been passing the acquired information on to the UK.
The Guardian reported that GCHQ, the UK's communications intelligence agency, has had access to data collected through PRISM program since at least June 2010, and last year generated 197 intelligence reports from it.
The Guardian also first reported the phone-spying program, through which the NSA has been collecting information on Verizon customers' phone calls, including call duration and frequency.
The revelations - which are the largest anti-terror intelligence-gathering operation since 9/11 - have placed massive pressure on Obama, who is already reeling from the recent IRS scandal.
In addition to the names already on the list, the cloud-storage service Dropbox was described as 'coming soon' to PRISM.
Twitter, which is known for zealously protecting its users' privacy, is conspicuous in its absence from the list of Internet companies said to be involved in the data-mining program.
PRISM was launched in 2007 with the blessing of special federal judges under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Post said that several members of the U.S. Congress were made aware of the classified data-gathering program, but were sworn to secrecy.
All forms of wiretapping of U.S. citizens by the NSA requires a warrant from a three-judge court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed in 1978.
But former President George W. Bush issued an executive order shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York that authorized the NSA to monitor certain phone calls without permission.
The warrantless wiretapping program remained a secret until 2005, when a whistleblower went to the press to reveal the extent of the surveillance.
And although the NSA has strenuously denied acting beyond its surveillance powers, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have warned that the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) - a bill currently passing through Congress - could dramatically increase the amount of personal data that government agencies have legal access to.
The particulars of the revelations were outlined in a top-secret PowerPoint presentation for senior intelligence analysts, which ended up being leaked to The Post and Britain's The Guardian.
According to the Post, maintaining the secrecy of the Silicon Valley giants who have been complicit in the scheme is of utmost importance to the U.S. government.
'98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don’t harm these sources,' and NSA official wrote in a document obtained by the Post.
PRISM has been described by NSA officials 'as the most prolific contributor to the president's Daily Brief' and the 'leading source of raw material,' the Post also reported.
As a cryptolific intelligence agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, the NSA is responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence. However, the agency allegedly has been using PRISM to target American Internet companies handling the accounts of domestic users on U.S. soil.
Analysts working for the NSA would reportedly pick out bits and pieces of data using search terms to help them zero in on foreign targets, but it is not unusual for American content to become swept in as well.
In practice, if collection managers in the NSA's Special Source Operation Group, which manages PRISM, have suspicion that their target is a foreign national engaged in terrorism or a spy, they move ahead to draw in all the data from the user's Facebook account, email inboxes and outboxes, and Skype conversations, which would often net in information on the suspect's contacts.
The 41-slide PowerPoint presentation outlining PRISM was leaked to the media by a career intelligence officer, which the Post says had 'firsthand experience with these system, and horror at their capabilities.'
The unnamed whistle-blower reportedly said he was driven by the desire to expose the government’s ‘gross intrusion on privacy.'
'They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,' the officer said.
The bombshell allegations come one day after it was revealed that the NSA has been collecting telephone records of millions of U.S. Verizon customers.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denounced the disclosure of highly secret documents Thursday and sought to set the record straight about how the government collects intelligence about people's telephone and Internet use.
He called the disclosure of an Internet surveillance program 'reprehensible' and said it risks Americans' security.
He said a leak that revealed a program to collect phone records would affect how America's enemies behave and make it harder to understand their intentions.
'The unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,' Clapper said in an unusual late-night statement.
At the same time, he moved to correct misunderstandings about both programs, taking the rare step of declassifying some details about the authority used in the phone records program and alleging that articles about the Internet program 'contain numerous inaccuracies.'
He did not specify what those inaccuracies might be.
At issue is a court order, first disclosed Wednesday by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, that requires the communications company Verizon to turn over on an 'ongoing, daily basis' the records of its customers' calls.
Separately, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported Thursday the existence of another program used by the NSA and FBI that scours the nation's main Internet companies, extracting audio, video, emails and other information.