• 'We know we're telling the truth,' Google said (Photo: google.be)

Tech giants plead innocence to MEPs on US snooping

12.11.13 @ 09:28

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Executives from three of the world's biggest IT firms - Facebook, Google and Microsoft - have told MEPs they did not give US intelligence services "unfettered" access to people's private data.

Their denials came in a European Parliament hearing on the spy scandal in Brussels on Monday (11 November).

Richard Allan, Facebook's man in charge of public policy for Europe, noted that his CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has "forcefully and repeatedly rejected fake reports that Facebook has allowed unfettered access to its servers."

Google's government relations chief, Nicklas Lundblad, said: "We have not given the US government access to Google servers either directly or via a back door."

Dorothee Belz, Microsoft's European legal affairs chief, noted: "Microsoft does not give any government in the world unfettered access to customer data."

All three said intelligence services and police have subpoenaed them to look for specific information on individual suspects.

Facebook's Allan noted that in the six months ending 31 December 2012, US agencies made about 10,000 requests, while EU countries made another 10,000 or so queries.

He added that many of them concerned day-to-day matters, such as help to find missing children, instead of espionage, and that they affected "a tiny fraction of 1 percent of all Facebook accounts."

Microsoft's Belz said US authorities made about 7,000 requests in the same time period, but that 24 percent ended with her staff finding nothing to hand over.

The three firms also said they would like to reveal more on US intelligence queries, but that they are gagged by US law.

"I don't think you can expect statements from companies that break the law and put their people in jail," Belz noted.

"We know we're telling the truth," Google's Lundblud said.

The testimonies come after files leaked by US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden said the three companies, as well as Apple, AOL, PalTalk and Yahoo, routinely hand over data to the US' National Security Agency (NSA).

US subpoenas are granted by the so-called Fisa court, which operates behind closed doors and which approved 99.95 percent of warrants filed by security services between 2001 and 2012.

Snowden files also say the NSA, and its British counterpart, GCHQ, have hacked Google servers and tapped undersea cables which carry internet and phone data between America and Europe.

For their part, MEPs voiced scepticism on the IT firms' innocence.

Sophie In 't Veld, a Dutch liberal deputy, said people from the same companies told her different stories in off-the-record chats.

"You have given carefully drafted legal statements. It reminds me very much of what President Clinton said on the Lewinsky case: 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman.' It was legally correct, but it had no bearing on the truth," she noted, referring to a 1998 US sex scandal.

'Oversight cheerleaders'

MEPs on Monday also heard from a US congressman, the Republican Party's Jim Sensenbrenner, who chairs an oversight committee on homeland security.

Sensenbrenner has tabled a bill, named the USA Freedom Act, designed to curb NSA abuse.

His law would make Fisa more transparent and would create a "privacy advocate" who would give Fisa judges counterarguments to NSA requests.

But a Democratic Party senator, Dianne Feinstein, who chairs a separate committee on intelligence oversight, has tabled a law which goes in the opposite direction.

"The Feinstein bill puts what the NSA has been doing into law and says it's OK … To me, that's scary," Sensenbrenner said.

"Over time, instead of applying the brake [on spying], they [US senators] have stepped on the gas. They've become cheerleaders for whatever the intelligence agencies want," he added.

With Feinstein's bill sailing through her committee by 11 votes to four last month, Sensenbrenner noted that he is fighting "the administration, the leadership of both our parties, of Congress, and of the intelligence oversight committee," to pass his freedom act instead.

Correction: The article originally said Feinstein is a Republican. Apologies