According to these reports, the telephone company Verizon hands over the details of the phone calls of millions of US and foreign citizens every day to the National Security Agency (NSA), while nine Internet majors – including Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Google and Apple – have given the FBI and NSA direct access to their users’ data under a secret programme called Prism.
US intelligence agencies are reportedly able to access all of the emails, audio and video files, instant messaging conversations and connection data transiting through these companies’ servers. According to The Guardian, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s British equivalent, also has access to data collected under Prism.
The proposed congressional commission should evaluate the degree to which the collected data violates privacy and therefore also freedom of expression and information. The commission’s findings must not be classified as defence secrets. These issues – protection of privacy and freedom of expression – are matters of public interest.
In his latest report, presented to the United Nations on 3 June, UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue argues that there can be no freedom of expression and opinion without protection of privacy. Reporters Without Borders adds that respect for the confidentiality of communications between journalists and their sources is a necessary condition for freedom of information.
On 7 June, the Obama administration recognized the existence of these two mass surveillance programmes but the nine companies named in a leaked document about Prism have denied any knowledge of the secret programme and have denied allowing direct access to their servers.
According to the leaked document about Prism, it was launched back in 2007 with congressional approval.
Microsoft issued a press release on 6 June stating its position on the transmission of information to the US authorities:
We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.
Google voiced its surprise about the reports in a 7 June blog post entitled “What the …?” The California-based Internet giant said:
First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a similar position in a post on his own Facebook page the same day:
Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday.