Tech Companies Don't Tell Whole Truth About Data They Send to Feds

NEWS ANALYSIS: You must parse company denials carefully to realize that while they're telling the truth about surveillance requests, it's not the whole truth.

When the revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency and other services including the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to light early in June, the companies singled out denied that they'd been providing information.

Initially, the companies said that they didn't provide any data at all under PRISM. Then they said they only provided information on their customers that was legally required. Likewise, when leaks revealed the delivery of phone call metadata to the NSA, Verizon simply didn't want to talk about it.

But if you read the statements from each of the technology companies singled out, what was more interesting wasn't what they said, but what they didn't say. What they didn't say was that they were delivering data under secret court orders to government investigators.

The reason for their silence on this issue was that the orders that directed them to deliver the data also ordered them to maintain secrecy regarding the request. Considering that violation of the order of the intelligence community's secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court is a serious felony, you can understand why these companies tended to respond as if they'd never heard of a court order.

But, of course, they had. Facebook was the first to admit that it had, indeed, been ordered to turn over customer records and the content of their Facebook communications in thousands of instances since the beginning of the year. Then Microsoft admitted the same thing and now Apple has admitted to getting such government requests.

But it's important to realize that these are data requests by any government agency for any number of reasons. For example, Apple revealed that these included helping to recover stolen iPhones, helping to find lost children and elderly people who had wandered off.

What's not in the numbers given by the technology companies is how many of the requests were for the purpose of gathering intelligence. They didn't reveal how much data of what type went to the NSA and how much to other agencies. Chances are that they won't say unless their requests to the court to allow them to release more information are granted. Don't hold your breath on this.

You'll notice that so far, only these three companies have admitted to providing data to law enforcement or the intelligence community. This is a lot fewer than the number that had been listed and the chances are excellent that those companies also had similar data requests, but just aren't talking. It's unclear whether Google, Yahoo or the others will talk or what they will reveal. But you can assume that if the first three don't get punished for what they revealed, then that will take the stigma off the companies that haven't talked yet.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...