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Summary:

Although reports continue to emerge about Google setting up systems to co-operate with the NSA’s surveillance and data-collection programs, the company’s chief lawyer repeatedly denied on Wednesday that it has done so.

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Ever since allegations first emerged that Google and a host of other tech giants were providing data on their users to the National Security Agency, there has been a race to see who can be the most transparent about this story. Google appears to be in the lead — even going so far as to file a lawsuit claiming that forcing the company not to disclose FISA court orders is a breach of the First Amendement. On Wednesday, it stepped up the campaign by offering chief legal officer David Drummond up for a live Q&A hosted by the Guardian.

One of the first questions got straight to the point: a user named KhakiSuit asked whether Google’s show of transparency wasn’t just “a face-saving exercise,” given that the company was only protesting the FISA court orders (which it wasn’t even allowed to mention until recently) after it had been shown to be “in cahoots with the NSA.” Drummond’s response:

Drummond Q&A NSA

In case you haven’t been following the case (there’s an overview post here if you need to catch up), one of the most contentious issues has been what kind of access Google and other companies have provided to the NSA in order to comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The original stories from the Guardian and the Washington Post quoted NSA documents leaked by former CIA staffer Edward Snowden saying the PRISM program provided “direct access” to company servers.

Subsequent reports from the Post and elsewhere have modified this description somewhat (although the way these updates have been handled by the Guardian and the Post has not been to everyone’s liking), and a piece in the New York Times that quoted sources at several of the tech companies mentioned said that they provided a kind of “dropbox” or “mailbox” to which the government had the key. But Drummond denied any such system was in place.

Google: “We’re not in the business of lying”

Charles Arthur, the Guardian‘s technology editor, asked whether Google had ever pushed to be able to disclose FISA orders before the NSA leaks were published, and if not why not. Drummond didn’t specifically answer the question, except to say that Google has “long pushed for transparency” and was the first company to file a public “transparency report” on the requests for data that it gets from governments.

After promising another commenter that Google is “not in the business of lying” and is “absolutely telling the truth about all of this,” Drummond also responded to a question about how users can have trust in cloud-based services when governments have the ability to collect data as it passes through switches and other internet infrastructure. The Google lawyer said the U.S. and other countries need to agree on rules related to data collection and need to “give close scrutiny to any laws that give governments increased power to sift through user data.”

Finally, another commenter asked Google’s chief counsel how the company was going to “renew user faith in the security of your services” in light of the revelations about the NSA and PRISM, and said that rhetoric about transparency wasn’t really helping. But Drummond wasn’t having any of it:

Drummond Q&A NSA2

Whether the Google lawyer’s protests will change anyone’s mind remains to be seen, but at least Drummond was willing to take on some questions in a public forum (although the Guardian noted that Google chose which questions to answer). And it’s fairly obvious why they would do so — because doubts about privacy of information in the cloud could hit the web giant right where it lives, as the company acknowledged in its First Amendment lawsuit.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Sam72

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  1. The best thing for these tech companies to do is just refuse cooperation with governments entirely while still being transparent, that would start to make government think twice about targeting individuals or groups (assuming there’s such thing as a smart person in the government).

  2. Q) How can you tell a lawyer is lying?

    A) His lips are moving.

  3. Ralph Haygood Wednesday, June 19, 2013

    And will he also swear on a stack of bibles that Google’s TLS isn’t compromised such that the NSA can get whatever they want without even asking? (They might still ask sometimes, say, when they want clean evidence for a potential legal proceeding.)

    Not that it matters much what he swears or how high the stack of bibles. He’s saying what most people who give the matter any thought expect him to say, regardless of whether it’s true. For over a decade, so much has been done secretly in the name of national security that it’s going to be hard for anyone involved in this situation to establish public credibility.

    Mr. Drummond has the extra problem that his company makes lots of money using what it knows about its users in ways that make many of its users at least slightly uncomfortable. Facebook has the same problem. If I were a betting man, I’d bet there’s a growing future for online companies whose users aren’t their product.

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