Google has finally been exposed as the deceitful, two-faced entity it really is, and now it’s desperately trying to spin the revelations of the NSA’ s pervasive spying program to its advantage. The company that loves to portray itself as the defender of the internet, espousing its “Don’t be Evil” propaganda whilst appearing to fight for internet freedoms, has been left scrambling to defend its so-called ‘reputation’ as a company worthy of our trust.
Hot on the heels of reports from The Guardian and the Washington Post, Google was among the first of the nine tech firms involved to deny any knowledge of PRISM. In a carefully worded statement, it vehemently denied that it had given the government “direct access” to its servers, adding that it had “never even heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday”.
But Google’s denials are riddled with holes that have been ripped even further apart by the government’s own admissions. Just hours after Google’s statement was issued, senior intelligence officials and later, President Obama himself, admitted that PRISM was genuine. Could it be that the NSA was acting without Google’s knowledge?
Highly unlikely, for a closer look at Google’s statement shows us that in actual fact, it isn’t denying anything at all. Rather, it looks as though Google is trying to conjure up a far more subtle PR strategy than simply denying any involvement whatsoever.
Google makes three key points in its statement that demand closer examination; firstly, that it didn’t provide the NSA with “direct access” to its servers, that there is no “back door” for the NSA, and that user data is only provided to the government “in accordance with the law”.
With regards to “direct access”, in the IT world this generally implies that one is given full and unrestricted access to a company’s servers. But in order to run something like PRISM, the NSA wouldn’t actually need “direct access”. Instead, some kind of ‘indirect access’ (such as Google transferring data to the NSA’s servers when requested) would more than likely suffice. Therefore, when Google says that “direct access” was not provided, it isn’t saying that it hasn’t participated in the program.
We can apply a similar logic to Google’s denial that the NSA has “back door” access to its servers. When we talk about ‘back door’ access, generally what we’re describing is a way to access a server that is neither documented, nor known about by the owner of the server. Simply denying that a back door exists is not the same as denying that it put some kind of system in place through which the NSA could access its data.
But what kind of system be in place – one that doesn’t constitute either direct access or a back door? Simple. Something like an API – the tool that company’s use to give developers limited access to their servers – would suffice. Now, to be sure, Google has covered its tracks here too, denying that an API was used, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it came up with some other, similar tool that the NSA could use.
As a further insurance policy, Google’s statement also notes that it only provides “user data to governments in accordance with the law.” But as outrageous as PRISM is, it is in all likelihood quite lawful, thanks to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and the Protect America Act of 2007.
But what about Google’s insistence that it had never heard of PRISM? Well, that one’s simple enough – would the NSA actually tell Google what the program is called? Of course not, so its denial is certainly plausible.
What we can’t be certain of is what Google is trying to achieve with its denials. It could be that it was hoping the government would also try to deny PRISM existed, as Google made its statement before any officials confirmed the program’s existence. If so, it’s been left looking rather foolish now. Alternatively, it may just be trying to come up with a clever way of protesting its innocence – maybe it will later try to portray itself as a victim, claiming that it never knew how much access the NSA really had, or which agency would be accessing the data, or what it would be used for.
Certainly, Google isn’t the only one trying to spin PRISM’s existence to its advantage. Just hours after the news broke, officials told Reuters how data collected from the program had helped law enforcement agencies to apprehend terrorists intent on blowing up the New York City subway. No doubt in the coming days and weeks we’ll hear about other examples of how vital PRISM is to national security.