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Snowden fallout: Facebook, Microsoft clarify roles

Tech giants given leave to disclose level of government monitoring under NSA's 'spy project' Prism

Snowden fallout: Facebook, Microsoft clarify roles
Edward Snowden faces an extradition battle with US authorities.

Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp this weekend released information on the number of requests they have received from the US government for the monitoring of online accounts as part of the National Security Agency's Project Prism, Reuters reported yesterday.

The tech companies won leave from the US Justice Department to disclose limited information as they attempted to quell the unease surrounding last week's whistleblower revelations of Prism, an e-surveillance initiative that was initially claimed to cover "direct access" to Facebook and Microsoft servers.

Facebook on Friday said in a blog post that it received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests for user data in the second half of 2012, encompassing 18,000 to 19,000 user accounts. Facebook is said to have more than 1.1bn active users worldwide. Reuters reported that most requests were routine police inquiries, but that Facebook was not at liberty to say how many were issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Microsoft announced it had received requests for data on 31,000 consumer accounts in the second half of 2012.

Project Prism was revealed by NSA third-party contractor Edward Snowden, who was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton and was contracted out as a systems administrator to the NSA Threat Operations Center in Hawaii. Snowden insisted he was compelled to do so out of concern for the far-reaching implications of the programme and the "basic liberties for people around the world".

Early reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post suggested that intelligence community officials had untrammeled access to user accounts.

"We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive," Facebook wrote on its site.

Google also moved to deny that the US government had any direct access to its systems, saying all requests for information were appropriately vetted within the company and information, when provided, was submitted via FTP.

Snowden is reported to be in Hong Kong and preparing for an extradition battle with US authorities amid street protests expressing support for the 29-year-old, it was reported today. Protest banners read: "Arrest Obama, free Snowden", "Betray Snowden, betray freedom", "Big brother is watching you" and "Obama is checking your email". Snowden had previously told the South China Morning Post that the US had spied on the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which hosts an exchange for the city's domestic Web traffic. Other alleged targets included government officials, businesses and students.

The China-governed state has an extradition treaty with the US, which is said to have functioned smoothly since Hong Kong's handover from British administration in 1997. Legal experts consulted by Reuters said Beijing rarely interfered in the extradition process and recent normalisation of relations with Washington made it unlikely that the Chinese government would break from that tradition.

According to the early reports on Prism, nine companies took part, starting with Microsoft in 2007 and Yahoo in 2008. Others include Apple, AOL, PalTalk, Google-owned YouTube and Microsoft-owned Skype.

Insiders said the companies objected to the process of information disclosure, with Yahoo having gone so far as to appeal an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, arguing violations of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, following US District Judge Bruce Selya's, rejection of Yahoo's arguments, one insider told Reuters, no legal action has been taken by any of the nine participants.

"When Yahoo lost that case, it dissuaded everyone else from going to court," the source said.

Twitter, a staunch privacy advocate, has yet to be involved in Prism, but people familiar with the talks between the companies and the government said it was only a matter of time before the messaging platform was recruited.

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