Google & The NSA Are Pretty Cozy, As It Turns Out
Ever since Edward Snowden blew the whistle about how the National Security Administration is spying on just about everyone, the NSA has been under a great deal of scrutiny. Even big technology companies grilled President Barack Obama in late 2013 about the NSA surveillance programs, leading many to believe they knew nothing about it or only acted when they absolutely had to by law. Except, this isn't exactly true.
A few months later, a NSA lawyer revealed during a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board meeting that tech companies did know about the NSA collecting user data, and even helped them do the dirty deed. Now, Al Jazeera had got its hand on email communications between Google executives Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin, and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander — which apparently reveals a much more cooperative relationship between large technology companies and our government than we've been led to believe.
The emails, between Alexander and the Google executives, were exchanged one year before the Snowden revelations. Alexander extended an invitation to Schmidt in an email sent in June of 2012 for a "classified threat briefing" in August in California, which would "focus on Mobility Threats and Security." In the same email, Alexander wrote about a previous meeting held with other industry leaders, and how he wanted Schmidt to attend an August meeting with "a small group of CEOs" to discuss "the security of mobility devices," as well as the "specific threats," as Al Jazeera reports.
It seems this small group made up the Enduring Security Framework, a confidential government initiative that was launched in 2009 by 18 CEOs of U.S. companies, as well as deputy secretaries for the Department of Homeland Security and Defense. ESF is meant to "coordinate government/industry actions on important, generally classified security issues that couldn't be solved by individual actors alone." Some of the companies include Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Microsoft.
One recent threat the ESF addressed was a plot against "BIOS," otherwise known as "basic input/output system." This software actually starts up the hardware before the computer's operating system is triggered, and had China been successful in its efforts, it could have made a huge dent in the U.S. economy. According to 60 Minutes, the NSA worked with computer companies to increase BIOS security, although the companies weren't identified. But at this point, we can pretty much figure out what companies were involved based on these emails, as Al Jazeera reports.
And here's the rub: Yes, the NSA helped out these computer companies to make BIOS more secure. However, by allowing NSA on the inside track, they may know more weaknesses in the system just by examining how to make it stronger. That means if the NSA wants to open the back doors to these systems, they'll be able to more easily gather confidential information now.
Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Nate Cardozo told Al Jazeera:
[The NSA] has no business helping Google secure its facilities from the Chinese and at the same time hacking in through the back doors and tapping the fiber connections between Google base centers. The fact that it's the same agency doing both of those things is in obvious contradiction and ridiculous.
So these emails do, in fact, suggest Schmidt and Brin are in cahoots with the government through a confidential group, although a Google representative wouldn't answer any questions for Al Jazeera about the specifics.