The Guardian newspaper made headlines yesterday for a story claiming the tech companies were not entirely truthful about their knowledge of National Security Agency spying. News outlets quickly picked up the accusations from NSA General Counsel Rajesh De that tech companies had “full knowledge” of the controversial surveillance of their users.
From the beginning of the NSA scandal last summer, tech companies have furiously denied that the NSA had direct access to their data. They have also denied knowing anything about the program that apparently allows the NSA to forcibly demand user data, known as PRISM. Moreover, they have publicly lobbied the U.S. Government to permit them to disclose the number of users that have been surveilled by the NSA, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Companies suing the government for the ability to be more transparent eventually won that case, and have since disclosed — within still harsh restrictive bounds — more information on government data requests.
Thus, Facebook quickly denied the new accusations. In a statement, the company told TechCrunch:
“Before it was reported in the news, we had never heard of ‘PRISM’ or any program in which Internet companies, voluntarily or otherwise, gave the government direct access to servers or in any way facilitated the bulk collection of user data. At the same time, we never suggested that we were not aware of our obligations under FISA, which was the topic of today’s hearing. In fact, we have been fighting for more transparency around the lawful national security-related requests from the U.S. Government that we may receive under this statute. The suggestion that we were misleading the public is frustrating and untrue.”
Soon after we received this statement, The Guardian issued a major “amendment” to their story.
“This article was amended on 20 March 2014 to remove statements in the original that the testimony by Rajesh De contradicted denials by technology companies about their knowledge of NSA data collection. It was also updated to clarify that the companies challenged the secrecy surrounding Section 702 orders. Other minor clarifications were also made.”
Section 702 refers to a law that permits some of the more controversial intelligence agency surveillance programs [PDF].
When asked whether The Guardian still stands by their original interpretation of the story, spokesman Gennady Kolker wrote back, “The article was amended to clarify and correct our reporting, in line with the Guardian’s policy and practices.”
In the original piece, The Guardian wrote the following:
The senior lawyer for the National Security Agency stated unequivocally on Wednesday that US technology companies were fully aware of the surveillance agency’s widespread collection of data, contradicting month of angry denials from the firms.
The NSA’s Wednesday comments contradicting the tech companies about the firms’ knowledge of Prism risk entrenching tensions with the firms NSA relies on for an effort that Robert Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence, told the board was “one of the most valuable collection tools that we have.
Now the passages read as follows:
The senior lawyer for the National Security Agency stated on Wednesday that US technology companies were fully aware of the surveillance agency’s widespread collection of data.
De and his administration colleagues were quick to answer the board that companies were aware of the government’s collection of data under 702, which Robert Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence, told the board was “one of the most valuable collection tools that we have.
Note that these sections have now been stripped of anything about De’s statements “contradicting” the companies’ insistence that they have not participated. The piece still asserts that the companies were aware of the governments collection under Section 702 — the FISA Amendments Act — with De replying yes to a question about whether the data collection occurred with the “full knowledge and assistance of any company from which information is obtained.”
The amendments to the article scaling back De’s statements reflect the difficulty in covering a story that has been shrouded in secrecy–a secrecy that has frustrated by citizens and tech companies alike. President Obama has proposed several changes to Intelligence Agency surveillance, but any major transparency reforms will have to wait until congress takes up the issue later this year.
Google did not respond to a request for comment, and Yahoo and Microsoft had no comment.