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Google's Eric Schmidt says he was unaware of NSA snooping

The search giant's executive chairman has the necessary security clearance but tells the Guardian he was never briefed about the NSA's activities.

Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt
Google's executive Chairman Eric Schmidt
Dan Farber/CNET

Google executive Chairman Eric Schmidt says he didn't know the National Security Agency had infiltrated the company's networks to capture user data until it was revealed last year.

In an interview with the Guardian published Wednesday, Schmidt weighed in on the reports that the NSA has had a program in place to tap into the networks and data centers of Google and Yahoo. Schmidt said he "complained at great length" to the US government when that information was revealed through documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But he insisted he hadn't known about it beforehand.

"I have the necessary clearances to have been told, as do other executives in the company, but none of us were briefed," Schmidt told the Guardian. "Had we been briefed, we probably couldn't have acted on it, because we'd have known about it. I've declined briefings [from the US government] about this because I don't want to be constrained."

Schmidt "hinted" to the Guardian that Google receives only a small number of data requests from the NSA but declined to get specific.

"It's illegal to notify the public how many requests we get; we've filed suit to release the aggregate number," Schmidt said, adding that he chooses not to see the requests despite his security clearance. "I do not by choice, because if I did then I would be subject to a whole lot of rules. There's a team of attorneys who see them."

Google and other tech companies have since beefed up their servers with stronger encryption designed to lock out the NSA snoops.

And what should become of Snowden, whom some see as a hero and others as a villain? Schmidt admitted that Google would not have learned of the NSA spying without Snowden's efforts. But he was on the fence over the question of whether Snowden should be pardoned or sent to jail.