Google Goes On The Offensive

Edward Snowden (Photo: VentureBeat)

The NSA revelations from one strange cat named Edward Snowden and his enabler, the lawyer turned political activist turned commentator turned journalist Glenn Greenwald, put Silicon Valley’s biggest brands on the defensive.

Reports by Mr. Greenwald writing about Verizon’s breach of its customers’ privacy (in the news hole of The Guardian) were quickly overshadowed by the even bigger news that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others also were clandestinely in bed with the NSA, and perhaps each other in coordinating a response to this very public affront to their corporate reputations.

I’m sure some of this will be raised today at Facebook’s annual shareholder meeting, alongside the gripes raised by those protesting Mr. Zuckerberg’s pact with the climate change deniers in order to get immigration reform done.

The public outrage over the NSA revelations reached such a pitch to prompt one very smart valley mainstay to turn the tables on the NSA in order to preserve its reputation, i.e., the trust it has built with the public. (After all, if your reputation is sullied, what else do you have?)

Google this afternoon didn’t issue a press release, nor did it book CEO Larry Page on CNBC (or MSNBC).  As it’s known to do, the company’s general counsel posted a statement on its official Blogspot blog in effect calling for greater latitude in revealing what the NSA asks of its database.

It has a headline and read as follows:

Dear Attorney General Holder and Director Mueller

Google has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users’ trust. For example, we offer encryption across our services; we have hired some of the best security engineers in the world; and we have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data.

We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.

Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters. There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative. Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security.

We will be making this letter public and await your response.

David Drummond

Chief Legal Officer

I learned about it from a tweet from Google’s Rick Lau whom I’ve known since his days running Blogspot. He now toils in operations for Google Ventures.

“Google has nothing to hide.”…
— Rick Klau (@rklau) June 11, 2013

Net net: we have to give Google’s communications consiglieres considerable credit for not laying back and letting the media echo chamber define its role in this nasty affair.