According to bombshell reports in the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, an NSA program called PRISM allows the U.S. government to collect data directly from the servers of Google and others, including Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.
The revelation that the NSA apparently has such unchecked ability to spy on the American public's internet activities came from a slide show presentation about PRISM, leaked by whistle-blower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. He has fled to Hong Kong, leaving behind a $200,000-a-year job and a home in Hawaii with his girlfriend.
"I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building," Snowden said in a video interview.
A slide in the leaked NSA presentation about data gathering described PRISM as "Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."
The report was met with strongly worded denial from Google executives in a June 7 blog post titled "What the...?" by CEO Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond.
"The U.S. government does not have direct access or a "back door" to the information stored in our data centers," the executives write. "We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday."
The Google executives say they do provide the U.S. government with specific Google user data, but only when required by law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don't follow the correct process," the executives write. "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."
Google's executives note that they have worked hard to be "transparent" about the data requests received, being the first internet company to publish a "Transparency Report" about government requests for data. The reports show a steadily increasing number of requests for user data, from 12,539 requests in last half of 2009 to 21,389 in the last half of 2012. Between 66 percent and 76 percent of the requests led Google to turn over some data, starting in 2011.
The executives also appear to oppose the laws that compel them to hand over user data, laws which apparently require a "level of secrecy" about the requests.
"We understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens' safety — including sometimes by using surveillance," the executives write. "But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish."
Google's chief architect Yonatan Zunger wrote his own response. "Owing to the nature of my work at Google over the past decade, it would have been challenging — not impossible, but definitely a major surprise — if something like this could have been done without my ever hearing of it."
He added his own concerns about the U.S. government's growing surveillance apparatus.
"I, personally, am by now disgusted with their conduct: the national security apparatus has convinced itself and the rest of the government that the only way it can do its job is to know everything about everyone. That's not how you protect a country. We didn't fight the Cold War just so we could rebuild the Stasi ourselves."