Centre for Internet & Society

The CEOs of Facebook and Google on Saturday categorically denied that the US National Security Agency had "direct access" to their company servers for snooping on Gmail and Facebook users. But both acknowledged that the companies complied with the 'lawful' requests made by the US government and shared user data with sleuths.

The article by Javed Anwer was published in the Times of India on June 9, 2013. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

In a post titled "What the ...?" Google's official blog, CEO Larry Page wrote, "We have not joined any program that would give the US government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday."

A few hours later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded. "Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers... We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday," he wrote on his page at the social media site.

According to a few PowerPoint slides allegedly leaked by an NSA official, nine technology companies - Google, AOL, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, Skype, Facebook, YouTube and PalTalk - are providing the US government easy access to user data. While all companies have denied being part anything called PRISM, Facebook and Google have been most vocal about it.

A few hours after Facebook and Google statements, the New York Times said in a report that technology companies had "opened discussions with national security officials about developing technical methods to more efficiently and securely share the personal data of foreign users".

"In some cases, they (companies) changed their computer systems to do so," noted the NYT report.

The statements by the CEOs have done little to allay privacy fears. "The denials from the companies look highly coordinated, including similar phrases in all their responses. I don't think they are lying outright, though the NYT report suggests that they are telling a half-truth. They may not provide the US government 'direct access' to all their servers, but may be providing indirect access, or may just be responding to very broad FISA orders," said Pranesh Prakash, a policy director with Centre for Internet and Society in India.

On Friday US president Barack Obama had tacitly acknowledged NSA surveillance programmes aimed at non-US citizens. "You can't have a hundred per cent security and also then have a hundred per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society," he told reporters in the US.

Page and Zuckerberg also called on the governments to be more open about surveillance programmes. "The level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish," wrote Page.

Added Zuckerberg, "We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It's the only way to protect everyone's civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term."