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Google Asks Approval to Offer More Transparency About Role in PRISM Program

After news broke that companies such as as Google, Facebook and Yahoo provided some user information to the PRISM surveillance program, the tech giants have started to grapple with how to comply with government orders while offering more transparency to users. Jeffrey Brown talks to Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond.

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    And we return to the surveillance programs and the questions surrounding them. Beyond the government itself, there are many concerns about the role of companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!

    Today, Google sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the FBI, saying it wants to be allowed to be more transparent about the government's requests for data — quote — "in terms of both the number we receive and their scope."

    Within hours, Facebook and Microsoft issued similar statements and requests of the government as well.

    Jeffrey Brown spoke with Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, from Amsterdam this afternoon. It was Google's first U.S. broadcast interview since the news broke.


    David Drummond, welcome.

    In your letter to the attorney general, you appear to acknowledge that Google does comply with government requests for user data, so that is in fact the case?

  • DAVID DRUMMOND, Chief Legal Officer, Google:

    Yes, yes, that's the case.

    We sent that letter because there's been a serious misimpression that's been created in the wake of the stories that came out in the last few days, stories that we were as shocked by as everyone else. And the misimpression is that we're doing some kind of large-scale — or participating in a program that does large-scale surveillance on our users.

    And that's just not the case. And we want to be able to be more transparent about what we do do, which is occasionally comply with national security orders, as we're required to do. What we would like the government to do is to allow us to say more.


    There seems to be a distinction between direct and indirect access to data. What exactly is the government allowed to look at?


    Let me be very clear about this. We do not participate in any kind of a program that gives the government any access to access to our servers, direct or otherwise, nor do we allow the government to place any kind of equipment on our systems.

    What we do do and what we have been transparent about as much as we can is that we comply from time to time with these government orders. We take them very seriously. We review them very carefully. We push back if they are overbroad.

    And here's the important thing. We serve hundreds of millions of users. The — only a tiny, very tiny fraction of our users have ever been subject to one of these requests, national security requests. So this idea that we are sort of participating in a broad program here is simply false. And we want to make that clear and we want to make that categorically clear.


    Well, how exactly do these requests work? Do you get a court order? Do you have to have one? Who sees it on your end, and who approves it?


    Yes, these are the FISA court orders that you have heard about. And we have a team that handle these directly.

    And we have experience with those. As I said, we review them very, very carefully. And when we determine that we need to comply, then we deliver the information to the government. And it's very clear. We deliver it to them. We push it out to them. They don't come access it through any machines at Google.


    Are there specific cases where Google has said no to a request for access?


    Well, we're on record in other contacts of having pushed back. And so we are willing to push back if something is overly broad.


    So people who are wondering where are the limits when you do comply, is that a broad brush for data or very targeted and specific with what the government is looking for?


    Look, one of the things we're asking here, what we wrote in the letter is that we would like to be able to say more about the number of these requests that we get, what they cover, and be more transparent about it.

    We have pioneered this concept of being transparent about the government requests that we get. We think it's really important as a check on our behavior, as a check on the government's behavior. And we would like — we are asking the attorney general and the FBI director to allow us to provide more of that information.

    But what I can tell you is that these are targeted requests, as I said, of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of users. We're talking about a tiny fraction that's affected. And we would like to say more about that.


    And what about sharing with other governments? We're talking about the U.S. government here. Do you get these kinds of requests from other governments, the U.K. or others?


    Well, we have received requests from other governments from time to time. I think it's important to understand that Google is a U.S. company. The data is based here in the U.S. We typically ask those countries to go through the treaty-based process, law enforcement, to get access to that material.


    You sound very frustrated, just listening to you talk about what you can and cannot say and about what you see as misperceptions about how this works.


    Well, yes, it's a little bit frustrating. But that's why we want to say more, because we want it to be clear that what the actual facts are. And there have been a lot of things being said about our participation in the program that just aren't true.

    And so we really would like to set the record straight. As I said, we were surprised, one, by the Verizon national security order involving phone records. We have never received anything so broad. We were surprised by the allegations made about this so-called PRISM program. And I said we don't participate in anything that's described there.

    So we really wanted to get the record straight and we wanted to make the request of the government to help us make — set the record straight by allowing us to provide more detail in our transparency report about these kinds of national security orders.


    David Drummond of Google, thanks for joining us.


    Thank you for having me.


    You can read Google's full letter to the Department of Justice on our website.

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