The heads of Google and Facebook have denied knowingly participating in a US surveillance program that mined their servers in search of private user data. Both companies have called for more transparency.
Google chief Larry Page and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg on Friday denied co-operating with a US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program, which targeted personal user data in the central servers of at least nine Internet companies.
Page said that while Google understands that governments must take action to protect their citizens' safety, "the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish."
The denial comes after the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers revealed on Thursday that the NSA had used a top secret program - called PRISM - to obtain audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs from the central servers of major Internet companies.
In addition to Facebook and Google, the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, PalTalk, AOL Skype, YouTube and Apple were also targeted.
"We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk…and if we did, we would fight it aggressively," Zuckerberg said in a public Facebook message.
"We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe," he added. "It's the only way to protect everyone's civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term."
Obama defends surveillance programs
The two Internet companies' calls for more transparency came after US President Barack Obama defended PRISM and the NSA's broad surveillance of telephone records. The president said the programs struck a balance between privacy and security concerns.
"They help us prevent terrorist attacks," Obama said of the programs, adding that they were worth the "modest encroachments on privacy."
"They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," he said.
On Wednesday, the Guardian revealed that the US telecommunications company Verizon had been compelled by a secret court order to provide the NSA with access to the phone records of its customers.
Concerns in Europe
Officials on EU-wide and national levels have expressed concern that US snooping on Internet user data could impact European citizens as well. The Guardian reported that Britain's equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, has been using the PRISM program since 2010.
"The US government must provide clarity regarding these monstrous allegations of total monitoring of various telecommunications and Internet services," said Peter Schaar, German data protection and freedom of information commissioner.
"Statements from the US government that the monitoring was not aimed at US citizens but only against persons outside the United States do not reassure me at all," Schaar added.
EU Justice Commissioner and Vice President Viviane Redding said that the revelations should create impetus for better data protection laws in Europe.
"This case shows a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right," she said.
slk/lw (AP, AFP, Reuters)