UPDATED 07:58 EDT / JUNE 17 2013

NEWS

PRISM Scandal Rumbles On: Facebook, Microsoft & Apple Come Clean Over Data Requests

And so the drama over the NSAgate scandal rumbles on. This weekend, three technology companies implicated in the so-called PRISM spying program released limited information about the number of surveillance requests they had received over the course of the last year, in an apparent effort to show that they aren’t hiding anything.

Google made a similar move late last week, and this was followed by Facebook on Saturday when it released aggregated numbers of requests it had received. According to the social media firm, it received “between 9,000 and 10,000 requests” for its user’s data in the second half of 2012, pertaining to between 18,000 and 19,000 user accounts.

According to Facebook, the majority of these requests were “routine police inquiries,” although the company is precluded from saying exactly how many requests were made under the FISA Act, which has been linked to the PRISM program. Previously, Facebook were forbidden from disclosing they had received any FISA requests at all, so Saturday’s statement is at least an admission that they weren’t telling us the whole story before.

“We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive,” said Facebook in a statement posted onto its site.

Later, Microsoft followed suit, revealing that it had received data requests for a total of 31,000 different users in the second half of 2012. This differs from a previous “transparency report” published earlier this year, in which Microsoft gave details of some 24,565 requests for the whole of 2012 – clearly, we can assume that the original “transparency report” was in reality fairly opaque, as you don’t need to be a maths wizard to realize that FISA requests make up the bulk of inquiries in Microsoft’s case – something that Microsoft itself hasn’t disputed.

This morning, Apple also spoke up about its own data requests, saying that between December 2012 and May 2013 the firm received 4,000-5,000 requests for user data from the government. These numbers are said to include both FISA requests and regular police inquiries.

Does FISA Even Matter?

 

Not that any of this leaves us much clearer about what PRISM really is, or the kind of data that the government actually has access to. One thing we do know is that FISA requests are believed to seek more information than bog-standard email addresses, IPs and metadata, but due to the whole veil of secrecy that exists regarding this act, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much data companies hand over when complying with such an order.

We can also question whether or not these FISA requests have anything to do with PRISM at all. Lest we forget, when Edward Snowden first revealed himself as the NSA’s whistleblower, he claimed that he was able to access just about anybody’s email instantaneously, which suggests that no such order was ever required to do so in the first place – unless of course the NSA had already made FISA requests for every single Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Skype and YouTube user in the world already (highly unlikely). Given this, we really cannot rule out the possibility that this whole ‘FISA’ thing is actually just a smokescreen, and that the companies involved have indeed given the NSA direct access to their servers – though this is something they strenuously deny.

Clearly, someone is lying – either Snowden is exaggerating his claims, or the companies aren’t telling the whole truth – for now, we’re left to make up our own minds about who we trust the most.

Other Developments

 

In other new relating to PRISM, the Associated Press reports that the government has continued to defend PRISM and its importance to national security. At the weekend, “top intelligence officials” stated that information gleaned by the NSA had helped to thwart terrorist plots in more than twenty countries since the program began. The officials declined to reveal any details on these apparent plots, nor would they name the countries concerned.

In addition to this statement, officials also offered up some more details on the scale of the NSA’s spy programs, insisting they’re far less widespread than initial reports suggest. Intelligence officials said that over the last year, fewer than 300 phone calls per day were checked against the database on US phone records that the NSA holds.

Separately, the Obama administration is said to be considering ways in which it can shed more light on PRISM without compromising the NSA’s operations. One idea it’s thought to be mulling over includes declassifying the secret court order that relates to Verizon’s phone records. NPR reports that the order would explain the safeguards and constraints that the order places on the NSA, and help to reassure US citizens that no one is listening into their calls.


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