In NSA surveillance, what choice do companies have?

Government tracking of Verizon telephone records raises the question of just how valuable phone information really is. Would it be more useful to track text message records?

New revelations show the federal government’s spying program isn’t contained to just telecommunication giant Verizon. According to reports from the Washington Post and the Guardian -- the National Security Agency is gathering personal user information from the nation’s top internet companies.

The program, code-named PRISM, launched in 2007, and is described by the government as “among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information” it collects. 

Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all publicly say they aren’t just opening their servers to the U.S. government. It’s more like – ‘we provide information if there’s a court order.’

ACLU attorney Michelle Richardson says defying that order could mean fines or worse.

“These are such highly regulated companies. They have lots of incentives to go ahead and go along with an order as opposed to fight it,” she says.

Under the law, Richardson says companies can and may have gone to a national security court, but virtually all of those rulings are secret.

Official documents suggest there’s some cooperation between the NSA and the companies.

But Ted Julian, an executive with the security firm Co3 Systems says there is a lot we do not yet know about the PRISM spying program.

“What is the government allowed and not allowed to do? And what were these companies, to what degree were they participating or not,” he says.

Google and others say they care deeply about the security of their users. Tech executives may soon have a chance to prove it.

Congressional committees expect to hold hearings on this surveillance program, and the firms are in a position to share critical information.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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