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Doubts cast on US govt Prism snooping program

Initial reports were incorrect when they claimed the US government had direct access to tech companies' servers, according to a report.

Details of top secret US government program Prism became public this week. The program supposedly gave the National Security Agency (NSA) a hotline to tech companies, letting it gather users' emails, audio, and video files. Several of the companies mentioned in the allegations -- including Facebook, Google and Apple -- have since denied all knowledge of the sccheme.

So what's going on? According to our US cousins at CNET, reports the NSA had direct access to companies' servers are incorrect. It all comes down to a misreading of a leaked PowerPoint document, according to a "former government official who is intimately familiar with this process of data acquisition".

According to them, "it's not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian [two papers with early reports of Prism]. None of it's true. It's a very formalised legal process that companies are obliged to do." It's similar to how the police request information in criminal investigations, the source says.

The Washington Post changed its original report on Prism, dropping the claim that Silicon Valley firms "participate knowingly". 

But that's not to say nothing of the sort is going on. One surveillance scheme did purloin customers' phone records from the network Verizon, and Washington officials confirmed it. But James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in a statement that the Guardian and Post articles about Prism "contain numerous inaccuracies".

In a Facebook post responding to the "outrageous press reports about Prism", Mark Zuckerberg wrote the social network "is not and never has been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight in aggressively. We hadn't even heard of Prism before yesterday."

Google echoed similar sentiments. In a blog post entitled "What the…?", Larry Page, CEO, and David Drummond, chief legal officer, wrote that "we have not joined any program that would give the US government -- or any other government -- direct access to our servers. Indeed, the US government does not have direct access or a 'back door' to the information stored in our data centres." The company said it too hadn't heard about Prism until yesterday.

Apple's statement reads: "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."

Microsoft, Yahoo, Dropbox and AOL all issued similar statements.

Are you worried about the prospect of governments spying on us online? Or is it all a lot of fuss about nothing? Let me know in the comments, or on Facebook.