Google: Government Has No Back Door, Front Door Or Side Door To Our Data

google-g-logo-2012The US government has no back door, front door or side door into our data, Google effectively said today, with its third PRISM-related denial. Each denial keeps stressing that Google doesn’t provide any type of constant stream of data to the government, that Google only hands over data on a case-by-case basis, after a legal order and review.

I’ll do today’s statement from Google, but I thought it would be better to do all of them, in the order issued.

Thursday: No “Back Door”

Here’s the first, which came out on Thursday. I’ve bolded the key parts:

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 ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

That statement didn’t rule out some type of “direct access,” instead denying “back door” access. That omission caused some to wonder if Google was using clever wording to avoid acknowledging that it gave access through some type of “front door” system.

My previous story, Evolution Of The PRISM Denials: This May Be Why They Seem So Similar, explains why I think the term “back door” was used, primarily because that’s what was being raised in news reports and perhaps what Google was being asked about.

Google’s statement also stressed that all reviews are handed over through a legal process that’s done after a review, which inherently precludes some type of constant monitoring that the initial reports of PRISM suggested were happening.

Friday: No “Direct Access” & Never Heard Of PRISM

To be clearer, Google came back with a second denial on Friday, saying:

You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.

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.

Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.

Finally, this episode confirms what we have long believed—there needs to be a more transparent approach. Google has worked hard, within the confines of the current laws, to be open about the data requests we receive. We post this information on our Transparency Report whenever possible. We were the first company to do this. And, 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. But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish.

That denial stressed again that any information handed over happened on a case-by-case basis, after a review.

This post also seemed to have been designed to take care of the direct access omission, and it also stressed that Google hadn’t even heard of PRISM. However, because that language was similar to statements made by others, it sparked another round of questioning the denial in some quarters.

Again, Evolution Of The PRISM Denials: This May Be Why They Seem So Similar explains why I felt there was a good reason why all these denials were so similar. But late on Friday, the New York Times had a story that suggested there was some type of secure servers being used by Google and other companies to transmit information.

That suggested that the denials were carefully constructed to avoid mentioning these servers, perhaps because by law, Google and the others might not even be able to talk about them.

Saturday: No “Drop Box” or “Blanket Orders”

From today’s post:

We cannot say this more clearly—the government does not have access to Google servers—not directly, or via a back door, or a so-called drop box. Nor have we received blanket orders of the kind being discussed in the media. It is quite wrong to insinuate otherwise. We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. And we have taken the lead in being as transparent as possible about government requests for user information.

Once again, Google stresses that there’s no on-going feed of information to the government. Data is handed over only on a case-by-case basis.

Today’s denial also seems to go directly against the New York Times story, saying it has created no such secure delivery system for the government.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Legal: PRISM


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • John Ellis

    At this point.. I’d trust Google before the government on any of this.

  • Andreas Ramos

    James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, stated the NSA does indeed have access to these companies. The Guardian verified the authenticity of the 41-slide PowerPoint presentation that describes Prism.

    So anyone at Google, Apple, Yahoo, FB, MS, etc. who denies this is either lying or doesn’t know.

    These companies must insist users have privacy in order to get people to trust their data to cloud storage. These companies also want to insist that they don’t share data with the US government so they can refuse to share data with other governments. The NSA’s admission fatally destroys that argument.

    These companies are in a very bad position. This could severely undermine the trend towards SaaS and cloud storage if those have no privacy.

  • Khaim

    I think you need to re-read the DNI’s statement. He does not say that the NSA has direct access to these companies. What he does say, roughly, is:

    1) The program described in the leaked documents is real.

    2) The media has made significant mistakes in reporting on this program.

    As it turns out, the only ones being untruthful in this story are the media. Even then, it’s not so much lying as jumping to conclusions: they took real leaked documents, read between the lines to insert words like “willing” and “direct”, and published as quickly as possible to avoid getting scooped.

    The companies are telling the truth: there is not direct access, and any information they release is via lawful[1] channels. The DNI is telling the truth, and the leaked documents are accurate: PRISM exists, is a tool that analysts use to collect and work with data, and has added the capability to interact with more companies over time.

    The missing piece, that the original source either didn’t know or didn’t care about, is that PRISM is not directly wired into company servers. When an NSA analyst inputs a request for information, PRISM transfers that to a dedicated liaison officer, who submits a legal order to the relevant companies, who respond exactly as they say they do. Then PRISM translates the company’s data into a common NSA format and returns it to the original analyst. As far as the analyst can tell, PRISM did all this by itself.

    [1] That something is lawful does not make it right. There are many unjust laws in this country.

  • Andreas Ramos

    Google (and others) insist this isn’t happening. Yet the US government will attempt to extradite and prosecute a person who says this happens.

    More details will come. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has been interviewing Snowden and looking at his NSA documents for five weeks (since early May). Greenwald is a lawyer by training.

  • Khaim

    First of all, the US hasn’t yet attempted to extradite and prosecute Snowden. They probably will, but let’s maybe wait for that to actually happen before using it as proof of something.

    Second, just because the US government goes after someone does not mean that everything they say is true. We know that he leaked classified documents – that alone is enough for the US to want to put him in jail, even if everything else that he says is complete fiction.

    To be clear: I believe that the documents are genuine. I do not believe much of what Snowden himself says. I’m not sure if he’s malicious or misinformed, but his claims are not supported by any evidence. In fact the leaked powerpoint slides contract him – the $20M/year price is at least an order of magnitude too small for the sort of espionage he describes. It is, however, about right for the kind of interface software that the DNI claims it is.

  • Michael Martinez

    It might help to link to this document that the US government released last week explaining what they are doing:

  • LaurieMann

    And, as we now know, there is indeed a government backdoor to Google. Very sad.

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