Microsoft Ratchets Up Its Defensive Rhetoric On PRISM Allegations

Microsoft is swinging back—again—at allegations that it willingly cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies in order to enable government access to messages on Outlook.com, SkyDrive and Skype.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith again denied the reports from the Guardian last week that apparently showed how the FBI, CIA and NSA were working hand in hand with Microsoft to enable near-anytime access to the software company's cloud services. (On July 12, Microsoft previously denied giving any government blanket or direct access to Skype or any other Microsoft service.)

Smith used the latest blog post to deconstruct as much as he could the interpretation of the Guardian article, which was based heavily on leaked PRISM documents from former IT contractor Edward Snowden. Smith and the rest of his company is hobbled by the fact that Microsoft does assist the government in intelligence gathering and law enforcement, and they are strictly forbidden to discuss the former.

To correct that situation, Microsoft sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday reiterating what it says were previous requests to "share publicly more complete information about how we handle national security requests for customer information." Microsoft had earlier filed a court petition on June 19 to "publish the volume of national security requests we have received," Smith wrote. Google filed a similar request with the attorney general's office and the FBI on June 11.

"In my opinion, these issues are languishing amidst discussions among multiple parts of the Government, the Constitution itself is suffering, and it will take the personal involvement of you or the President to set things right," Smith's letter asked.

Beyond the request to report data on how many national-security requests it receives, Smith did not characterize what kind of information about its cooperation with intelligence agencies that Microsoft is seeking to disclose. He did, however, categorically deny the conclusions from the Guardian article from last week. Regarding Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail), Smith stated:

We do not provide any government with direct access to emails or instant messages. Full stop. Like all providers of communications services, we are sometimes obligated to comply with lawful demands from governments to turn over content for specific accounts, pursuant to a search warrant or court order.

Similar procedures are in place, Smith added for SkyDrive and Skype calls. Regarding enterprise email and document storage:

If we receive a government demand for data held by a business customer, we take steps to redirect the government to the customer directly, and we notify the customer unless we are legally prohibited from doing so. We have never provided any government with customer data from any of our business or government customers for national security purposes.

The denials are to be expected: if the revelations of the PRISM documents are true, then the breach-of-trust damage to Microsoft's cloud business would be enormous. Not to mention the slew of lawsuits that would be sure to come in for Microsoft violating its own Terms of Service, since there's no clause for providing the government unlimited access to customer data.

Does this mean someone is lying here? Perhaps, but perhaps not. It could be that the access described in the leaked PRISM documents is describing the creation of a more direct connection between Microsoft (and the other named PRISM participants) and the government, but that does not mean the access is open 24/7.

One possible scenario that could have Smith and colleagues telling could be that the FBI, which appears to be the direct contact to PRISM companies, is still using warrants to request information on an as-needed basis, but the actual transferal of the data is done via the methodologies described in the PRISM documents and statements by Snowden.

Or everyone involved is lying through their teeth and we're all screwed.

Meanwhile Yahoo has won a spotlight on its own dealings with the government, with a win in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Monday that will allow Yahoo to reveal information about a 2008 case that ordered the company to turn over customer data. Yahoo is hoping that the revelation of this information will help shed a better light on what intelligence cooperation really means.

But unless someone inside Microsoft or Google, Yahoo or any other PRISM participant goes rogue and blows the whistle on their own, it is doubtful the full story will remain anything other than speculation. But that won't stop Microsoft and the rest of the PRISM gang from trying. 

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