Response to Revelations of NSA’s Data Collection Program: From Denial to Nonchalance

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As the nation comes to grip with the news that the National Security Agency has engaged in various surveillance programs that capture and catalog information like phone call records and the Internet data, reactions have ranged from near denials to outrage to nonchalance.

Companies who have been named in secret documents as having been a part of PRISM—Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple, among them—began to do damage control.

Apple claimed it has neither “never heard of PRISM,” nor does it provide a government agency with direct access to its servers: “Any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.” Similarly, Microsoft, which owns Skype, said it has never provided customer data to the government, and only does so in a legally binding court order. “We only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers,” the statement reads. “If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”

Facebook also issued a statement that hit back against accusations that the government was provided with direct access to its servers: “When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize anysuch request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law.”

(MORE: 7 Things to Know About the Government’s Secret Database of Telephone Data)

At first, Google took a purely administrative approach, saying it “cares deeply” about its users’ data and will disclose data to the government pursuant to the law, but that it reviews those requests “carefully.” But on Friday, in a blog post titled “What the …?”, Larry Page and David Drummond, Google’s top legal officer, reaffirmed that they hadn’t heard of PRISM until yesterday and called for a more transparent Obama Administration. “Of course, we understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety—including sometimes by using surveillance,” they wrote. “But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish.”

Meanwhile, civil rights groups have, not surprisingly, expressed outrage. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet freedom advocacy group, posted a brief but scathing critique against the Foreign Intelligence SurveillanceAct, which affords the government the authority to conduct the data mining. “It’s time to start the national dialogue about our rights in the digital age. And it’s time to end the NSA’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance program.”

(MORE: Homeland Insecurity: After Boston, The Struggle Between Liberty and Security)

The American Civil Liberties Union lambasted PRISM, too. “In the FISA context, [the NSA] believes all phone records are relevant to terrorism,” says Michelle Richardson, an ACLU attorney. “It’s one of those things where, when you look at the law, you can say ‘this is too broad,’ but when you see it out there in writing in a court order, it’s different. They said we were crazies with tinfoil hats, but what we said was happening is happening. It’s not until you see something like that FISA order in black and white that it hits you.”

Meanwhile, President Obama aimed to soothe the public’s concerns that PRISM didn’t target U.S. citizens, saying the programs have been approved—and repeatedly reauthorized—by bipartisan majorities in Congress since 2006. Later, he called them “modest encroachments on privacy” and added that “you can’t have 100% security and then have 100% privacy.”  True as that may be, that’s not what many Americans want to hear right now.

(MORE: President Obama Defends NSA Surveillance Programs as Right Balance)