Plausible Deniability: PRISM versus Apple, Google, Facebook, et al

Jun. 7, 2013
by Bob Adelmann

Once the cover was blown on the super-secret data collection program called PRISM by the Washington Post on Thursday, those implicated in cooperating denied any participation in it, and some even denied knowing anything about it. For instance, a spokesman from Apple said:

We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.

This was repeated in various iterations by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others exposed by the leak made public by WaPo. Here are some of the more choice selections of “plausible” denials:

From Facebook:

We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law.

From Google:

Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government “back door” into our systems, but Google does not have a backdoor for the government to access private user data.

From Microsoft:

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.

From Yahoo:

Yahoo! takes users’ privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network.

The only trouble is, these denials hide the simple fact that the National Security Agency (NSA) using PRISM has access to their servers, whether they know about it or not. The New York Times stated that NSA was gathering surveillance data from these companies using “other technical means” in order to obtain what they wanted. The Washington Post repeated the claim, saying that PRISM technology is so advanced that it allows “collection managers” to collect data from these companies’ servers and send it directly to Bluffdale, Utah, for analysis.

Mark Klein was working as an AT&T technician in San Francisco in 2002 when he was interrupted by an agent from NSA. That agent introduced Klein to the system NSA was setting up in the building where Klein was working to siphon off information from AT&T’s servers into a separate room:

[Klein] said the NSA built a special room to receive data streamed through an AT&T Internet room containing “peering links,” or major connections to other telecom providers. The largest of the links delivered 2.5 gigabits of data – the equivalent of one-quarter of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s text – per second….

When Klein saw what was happening, it was his “aha moment. They’re sending the entire Internet to the secret room!” Using a glass prism that divided the information into two pieces, the NSA could monitor every bit of data going across the Internet without impeding its flow:

This splitter was sweeping up everything, vacuum-cleaner style. The NSA is getting everything. These are major pipes that carry not just AT&T’s customers but everybody’s.

I flipped out. They’re copying the whole Internet! There’s no selection going on here. Maybe they select out later, but at the point of hand-off to the government, they get everything.

There’s vastly more to this story than can be reviewed here. But the point is made: with or without knowledge or approval from the major internet service providers, the PRISM project now has access to every email, video, or voice chat, every digital photo, every VoIP conversation, every file transfer, every login notification, every social networking conversation and the content of every text.

There’s a rule about power and technology: “if they can, they will.” And since they can, they are.

A graduate of Cornell University and a former investment advisor, Bob is a regular contributor to The New American magazine and blogs frequently at, primarily on economics and politics. He can be reached at



Documents: U.S. mining data from 9 leading Internet firms; companies deny knowledge


Internet Companies Deny Offering Government Access to Customer Data

The National Security Agency (NSA)

Big Data

NSA slides illustrating PRISM

Mark Klein’s story

Data collection center in Bluffdale, Utah

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