David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, on Wednesday pushed back against allegations that the search company is "in cahoots with the NSA" and has allowed the spy agency to tap into its servers for user data. [WATCH VIDEO]
"I’m not sure I can say this more clearly: We’re not in cahoots with the NSA and there’s is no government program that Google participates in that allows the kind of access that the media originally reported," Drummond said in response to a question asked during a live online chat hosted by U.K. newspaper The Guardian.
A day earlier, Google filed a petition asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to publish the aggregate number of national security requests it receives for user data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), citing its First Amendment rights.
In the complaint, Google said it wanted to publish the figures to help repair its reputation with users after "misleading reports" claimed that it let the National Security Agency (NSA) access its servers as part of an Internet surveillance program called PRISM. Google asked to publish the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any, and the number of users or accounts tied to those requests.
The move immediately grabbed social media users' attention, with some alleging that Google filed the petition as a strategic public relations move aimed at maintaining its consumers' trust.
Drummond bluntly rejected that claim when a participant in the Q&A said the company's action is "just a face-saving exercise."
"No, it isn't," he answered.
During the roughly hourlong chat, Google's top attorney sought to win back consumers' confidence in the company's handling of user data, as well as convince people that Google has not given the government unfettered access to its user data and servers.
"I’m really troubled if you’ve lost trust in us because of this idea that we’re collaborating in a broad surveillance program. We’re not, and that’s why we are pushing back so hard on these allegations," Drummond told one chat participant. "We hope that our actions, in pushing for more transparency and legal reform and in continuing to take steps to protect our users, will win you back."
However, Drummond was vague when answering some sensitive questions about whether Google has previously asked for permission to publish the number of FISA requests it receives and what explanation the company was given if the government denied such a request. In response, he pivoted back to Google's history of disclosing the number and certain types of government requests it receives for user information.
"We’ve long pushed for total transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data, for any reason," he said. "Earlier this year we managed to get clearance to release numbers for National Security Letters, but we’re going to keep pushing for more. We were also the first company to publish a transparency report."
He also said Google pushes back against the government "where we can" and does all it can to protect user data. But he noted, "We don’t write the laws."
"Maybe one positive outcome of all this will be to have a deeper debate on this and come up with laws that are more transparent to the public," he said.
Media reports initially said that the NSA had been given direct access to the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo. Tech companies have fiercely denied those reports and participation in any surveillance program that gives the government direct access to its servers.
Drummond noted during the Internet chat that "many of those original sources corrected their articles after it became clear that the PRISM slides were not accurate."
In an attempt to soothe users' concerns after the revelations about the NSA programs, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo have released figures on the number of government requests for user information they have received in recent months.
Yet Google held back, arguing that publishing the total number of government requests a company receives for user data isn't enough and would be a "step back" for its users. In its Transparency Report, the search giant breaks down its figures, providing numbers for national security letters separately from criminal ones. It also breaks down requests it receives via search warrant and subpoena.
Instead, Google said the government should let companies publish the aggregate number of FISA court requests they receive separately from criminal requests.
In a separate online chat with The Guardian earlier this week, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the secret NSA programs, said Google and Facebook "were misleading" when they publicly denied knowing about the Internet surveillance program.
"Their denials went through several revisions as it became more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies," Snowden said.