Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of one of the internet's largest data-mining companies, called President Obama to lecture him on privacy and surveillance. It was great diversionary theater, apparently. Today, the National Security Agency's General Counsel, Rajesh De, said that Silicon Valley's tech giants actually knew about the PRISM program all along.
De was testifying today in front of the Civil Liberties Oversight Board. "[De] said all communications content and associated metadata harvested by the NSA under a 2008 surveillance law occurred with the knowledge of the companies," wrote the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman, who interviewed the lawyer.
"Both for the internet collection program known as Prism and for the so-called 'upstream' collection of communications moving across the internet."
De told the Guardian that data collection under this program was a compulsory legal process, and that the legal process of Section 702—which mines communications between Americans and international recipients—applies when the NSA collects metadata in everyday transit across the internet.
De's testimony might seem like a face-saving move by the NSA, which has been under continuous public scrutiny since last summer. But it was always hard to believe that tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft were in the dark about PRISM, despite their claims of ignorance. For the NSA to efficiently hoover up bulk amounts of data from services and platforms like Gmail, Facebook, Skype, and so on, it's hard to believe they didn't get some help along the way.
For now, the tech giants aren't commenting. Zuckerberg, all brash last week in lecturing Obama on privacy, is silent. Perhaps these Silicon Valley firms are talking to their legal counsels. But, don't expect them to admit anything—chances are they'll fight tooth and nail against accepting any responsibility, considering the amount of revenue that's at stake if they lose consumers' trust.
For Silicon Valley's tech behemoths, it's better to play the illusionist's game, and keep the NSA looking like the enemy.