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Microsoft Denies Participation in Government Surveillance

Revelations yesterday that telecommunications carriers and key technology providers including Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft share information with the intelligence community has put the Obama Administration and Congress on the defensive. But Microsoft yesterday sought to assure critics its scope is limited to data subpoenaed.

"We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis," the company said in a statement. "In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

At the same time, leaked PowerPoint slides suggest Microsoft may have been the first IT player to participate in the program, called PRISM, as early as 2007.

In a press conference this morning, the president defended the program, noting it was authorized by Congress. "What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls, they're not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content," Obama said at a press conference this morning from San Jose, Calif. "But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."

Obama went on to say if the intelligence community actually wants to listen to a phone call, they must get the approval of a federal judge in a criminal investigation. In addition to Congress, he pointed out the FISA court is overseeing this effort. The FISA court evaluates classified programs to make sure that the government is acting in step with the law and Constitution, he noted.

"With respect to the Internet and e-mails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and people living in the United States," he added. "In this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, the FISA court has to authorize it."

Privacy experts are outraged feeling the government is overreaching and has the potential to abuse people's privacy. Others argue that the only way to combat terrorism is to take these measures.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, that's a discussion to be held elsewhere. The interesting component from an IT perspective is how the intelligence community is using metadata. With a whole new class of technology aimed at analyzing big data, it further highlights how software companies of all sizes are bringing to market new tools to gain intelligence from huge amounts of data, as I recently reported.

From their perspective, it's unfortunate for Obama and Congress that this came to light at all, but the timing of the revelation perhaps couldn't have been worse. The president has a long-planned meeting with China president Xi Jinping in California this afternoon to discuss a variety of trade issues.

Clearly on the list of topics discussed during that meeting will be China's brazen efforts to hack into the networks and systems of government agency systems including those with classified information, as well as recently reported attacks on commercial systems. Among those hit include some of the largest U.S. banks, utilities and media companies.

Certainly with today's disclosures, that will make that a... well let's just say a more awkward conversation. Hopefully the president will find a way to convince Jinping that he won't tolerate the persistent attacks and cyber-spying, which have wide-ranging consequences on all of our systems.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 06/07/2013 at 1:15 PM


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