Will Twitter Emerge as the Big Hero in PRISM Saga?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 8 2013 10:11 AM

Will Twitter Emerge as the Big Hero in PRISM Saga?

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An employee walks past servers in one of four server rooms at the Facebook data center in Forest City, North Carolina

Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

The Washington Post and the Guardian may have been the first to report the news that the National Security Agency had obtained access to the central servers of major Internet companies, but, a day later, the New York Times does a good job of catching up. The Times’ Claire Caine Miller (and, to be fair, eight other reporters credited at the bottom of the story) provides a detailed account that, at least at first glance, appears to reconcile some of the initial contradictions. One of the notable aspects of the account that is worth highlighting though is how Twitter simply refused to cooperate. So far at least, it seems the microblogging social network was the only major tech company that refused to make it easier to turn over data to the government.

On Friday, there was widespread confusion because all the tech companies allegedly involved in the program vehemently denied they gave the government direct access to their servers. So, were they lying? Not really, according to the Times account. PRISM wasn’t about giving unrestricted access to the government through a back door, but rather that the companies agreed to set up an easier way to share information they were already legally required to share anyway under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. From the story:

The companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.
The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.
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It’s also perfectly plausible that companies denied cooperation with government officials because those whose job it is to comply with FISA requests aren’t allowed to talk about it with other colleagues, and some even have security clearance, reports the Times.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.