By Brendan Sasso - 06/08/13 10:00 AM EDT
Major Internet companies are doubling down on their claim that they have no involvement in a secret National Security Agency surveillance program.
The companies quickly issued statements denying that they knew anything about the program, called PRISM, after it was first revealed on Thursday evening, and two CEOs issued even more forceful denials on Friday.
Google CEO Larry Page and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond published a blog post on Friday titled: "What the...?"
"Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period," the Google executives wrote.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a similar denial, and called the press reports "outrageous."
The stakes are high for companies like Google and Facebook, which depend on users trusting them with their most sensitive personal information. The companies have lobbied Congress for tougher laws against law enforcement access to online information, arguing those protections are critical for their business.
But the tech industry’s commitment to privacy is being challenged by reports that the NSA is tapping directly into the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple and PalTalk.
The PRISM program reportedly gives the government access to the contents of users' emails, video chats, audio, photographs and documents.
The Guardian and the Washington Post obtained an NSA slide show that seems to show that Microsoft was the first company to provide access to its servers in September 2007, while Apple was the most recent, in October 2012.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, confirmed the program in a statement late Thursday.
He explained that the program was authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is intended only to target people overseas.
But he said the press reports contain "numerous inaccuracies," and did not disclose how the NSA gains access to the user information.
Officials from three of the companies, who asked to speak anonymously, said they are confused by the news reports and trying to figure out what is really going on. They pointed to Clapper's statement to argue that the newspapers must be mischaracterizing the program.
The officials also doubted that the government has the ability to siphon off their data without their knowledge.
"It seems really unlikely that the government has secretly hacked into our systems," one official said.
Two of the company officials speculated that the NSA slide show detailing the PRISM program might have been taken out of context.
They explained that while they do not give the government direct access to their servers, they do turn over user data in response to FISA court orders. It is possible that the NSA slide show was instructing analysts on how to sift through data that was obtained legally through a FISA order, the officials speculated.
"It seems that the most likely answer is that this is legally acquired data that they've maintained and researched," an official said.
The court orders bar the companies from discussing them or even acknowledging their existence, so it's unclear how broad they are.
In his blog post, Zuckerberg specifically denied that Facebook has ever "received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk."
Google similarly denied that it has ever turned over massive batches of its users' information.
"Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false," Page and Drummond wrote.
But according to the newspapers' reporting, PRISM is a vast program and the primary source for one in seven intelligence reports.
"There's something about this story we still don't understand," one company official said.