What the NSA called Prism, the companies knew as a streamlined system that automated and simplified the “Hoovering” from years earlier, the former assistant general counsel said. The companies, he said, wanted to reduce their workload. The government wanted the data in a structured, consistent format that was easy to search.
Any company in the communications business can expect a visit, said Mike Janke, CEO of Silent Circle, a company that advertises software for secure, encrypted conversations. The government is eager to find easy ways around security.
“They do this every two to three years,” said Janke, who said government agents have approached his company but left empty-handed because his computer servers store little information. “They ask for the moon.”
That often creates tension between the government and a technology industry with a reputation for having a civil libertarian bent. Companies occasionally argue to limit what the government takes. Yahoo even went to court and lost in a classified ruling in 2008, The New York Times reported Friday.
“The notion that Yahoo gives any federal agency vast or unfettered access to our users’ records is categorically false,” Ron Bell, the company’s general counsel, said recently.
Under Prism, the delivery process varied by company.
Google, for instance, says it makes secure file transfers. Others use contractors or have set up stand-alone systems. Some have set up user interfaces making it easier for the government, according to a security expert familiar with the process.
Every company involved denied the most sensational assertion in the Prism documents: that the NSA pulled data “directly from the servers” of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and more.
Technology experts and a former government official say that phrasing, taken from a PowerPoint slide describing the program, was likely meant to differentiate Prism’s neatly organized, company-provided data from the unstructured information snatched out of the Internet’s major pipelines.