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Tech execs urge U.S. to help clear their names in NSA surveillance

Silicon Valley firms want the government to disclose more about their role in such programs. They hope it will show they didn't give the U.S. direct access to data.

June 18, 2013|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Apple on Monday became the latest company to try to reassure consumers whose trust has been shaken by reports that tech firms turned over users' personal information to the federal government.
Apple on Monday became the latest company to try to reassure consumers whose… (Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Scrutiny of the role technology companies played in a clandestine government surveillance program is intensifying, and nowhere have the revelations that companies turned over users' personal information been more unsettling than in Silicon Valley.

Executives here whose livelihood depends on maintaining the trust of users are urging the government to disclose more about the scope and the extent of their cooperation with the National Security Agency's Internet surveillance program PRISM. They hope the disclosures will show that Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. did not partner with the government or provide direct access to their computer servers as alleged by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Silicon Valley executives are worried the relentless media coverage will erode public confidence, making people feel less comfortable sending emails and sharing photos, knowing that all the while they could be leaving a digital trail for the U.S. government to follow. And that could put a serious crimp in businesses here.

On Monday, Apple became the latest company to try to reassure consumers whose trust has been shaken. Apple said it received as many as 5,000 requests for customer information from U.S. law enforcement officials during the six months that ended in May.

The requests involved 9,000 to 10,000 customer accounts or devices, the company said in a statement. Not all the requests involved the PRISM program, which the company said it did not know about until revelations in the news media June 6. Like other companies, Apple says no government agency has direct access to Apple servers.

Daniel Kan, co-founder and chief operating officer of San Francisco start-up Exec, says he doesn't think most Americans will stop using Facebook and Google or abandon their iPhones. But, he said, he might think twice the next time he sends an email or posts an update.

"If it's there, it's there forever," Kan said. "Whenever you have people thinking twice whether or not to say something or do something, you are going to limit what they do with the product."

Denials from Apple and other technology companies are misleading, said Snowden, the computer technician who revealed the PRISM program. In an online chat Monday arranged by the Guardian newspaper, he said more detail on "how direct NSA's accesses are is coming."

Facebook and Microsoft said Friday that they received thousands of warrants for data from government authorities during the second half of 2012. The companies were not permitted to say how many of the data requests were related to national security. Technology companies also secretly provide data to the FBI under National Security Letters, which gathers information on Americans. Under federal law, companies cannot disclose even the existence of national security data requests.

Google, which publishes semiannual reports on the government's requests for user information, is pressing the Obama administration to release more information on the national security requests they get under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Google's previous transparency reports did not include FISA data requests. Microsoft's previous transparency report also did not include FISA requests but did include National Security Letters.

"Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately," Google said Friday in an emailed statement.

The agreements that Apple, Facebook and Microsoft struck with the U.S. government to release limited information about the number of surveillance requests they receive may not be enough to stem the fallout from the disclosure they took part in the secret government data-collection program, observers say.

"There was already some nervousness about dealing with Silicon Valley companies because of privacy of information in the cloud," Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman said. "For anyone who was already primed to be concerned about that, this has to put that concern over the top."

And that has triggered widespread concern in Silicon Valley.

The disclosures run counter to the libertarian values baked into Silicon Valley corporate culture. People here envision the Internet as a way to spread freedom and knowledge — and to build innovative new businesses — not as a way for the U.S. government to secretly monitor and track people around the world.

Even in a place where attention quickly flips to the latest product news bubbling up from Apple, Facebook and Google, the NSA leaks continue to dominate the conversation. The leaks even took away some of the attention usually lavished on Apple's annual conference for developers last week.

"There are still just too many unknowns," said Gabe Rivera, founder and chief executive of TechMeme, Silicon Valley's go-to website for technology news.

The scandal underscores an uncomfortable reality: Silicon Valley is the target of national security requests because it vacuums up so much of people's everyday lives. Companies that tap all that data to target online ads already had plenty of privacy headaches, with consumer watchdogs in the U.S. and overseas complaining they take far too many liberties with people's personal information.

New technologies coming out of Silicon Valley, such as Google Glass, push the envelope on privacy even further. And that could invite something no one here wants: attention from Washington and a new wave of regulation.

"You can bet that all the companies are scrambling to reposition their products: 'We are all privacy hawks now,'" said Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley technology forecaster.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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