Microsoft, the NSA’s Cooperative Mistress

Speculation to the contrary, Edward Snowden’s purloined papers appear to mostly confirm Microsoft’s claim that it does not provide private customer metadata to the nation’s spy agency unless compelled by court order.

History might someday prove otherwise. But Microsoft insists that’s the whole truth, nothing but. To prove it, the corporation is even seeking permission to release more details about the secret court hoops it must jump through when the government demands the private data.

Still, the Redmond software giant this week did not exactly come across as a company willing to be waterboarded before it will give up its users’ Outlook emails and Skype videos.

A new batch of defector Snowden’s top secret documents depict Microsoft as, if not sleeping with the enemy, then being a mistress of cooperation when asked to help out. Rather than merely turn over the court-ordered data to the National Security Agency, for example, it sometimes went the extra yard – in one example, allowing the NSA to circumvent the MS encryption process so the agency could more easily intercept web chats, reports the Guardian.

NSA documents detail how Microsoft worked closely with the FBI as well, helping the agency collect Outlook addresses and access its cloud-storage service SkyDive, via Prism, a NSA program that gathers data from internet companies. The FBI is the intermediary between the agency and the companies.

Microsoft also has a little-noticed motivation to be a willing partner to the NSA and its umbrella agency, the Department of Defense - billions in new money from defense contracts. According to a Seattle Weekly review of DoD spending, Microsoft - with new $412 million and $617 million contracts coming on the heels of a $700 billion contract last year - can today count the Pentagon as its single largest customer.

Microsoft’s diverse defense works includes collaborating with the NSA on cybersecurity issues and providing software for the U.S. Special Operations Command – the people who, with the CIA, brought President Obama the head of Bin Laden. The company’s soaring defense sales of software and tech-support services to the Pentagon over recent years has effectively made MS and the US business partners in war, peace and national security.

The same goes for other tech companies including Apple and Google, whose private communications resources are also being tapped by the NSA’s metadata gathering of telephone and internet traffic (enabled in part by supercomputers made by Seattle-based Cray Inc.) The rival techies often battle for the same defense contracts, and it pays to have close ties and maintain good relationships with the Pentagon.

The MS/DoD alliance is evident the moment you seek to find out what kind of business Microsoft does with the Pentagon: search for MS contracts on the DoD website (the company racked up nearly $2 billion worth in the last year and a half alone) and the results are happily returned by the Pentagon’s Bing search engine.

In a statement, Microsoft says “We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues,” adding: “There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely.  That’s why we’ve argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues.” 

On Tuesday, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, officially asked that the court’s gag order on metadata requests be lifted; the AG’s office is reviewing the letter.

It seems an earnest request, though cynics saw it as a public relations gesture, suspecting Microsoft really doesn’t want to explain some seemingly contradictory info. For instance, the NSA and apparently Microsoft began integrating Skype into the Prism data mining system in November 2010. If Microsoft, as claimed, acts only when told to do so by the Fisa court, why did that integration begin taking place three months before Microsoft was served with the US directive to do so?, according to Snowden’s NSA documents.

As D. C. attorney Peter Toren told the blogsite law360.com, releasing Fisa details “could end up hurting them if it turns out that the disclosure is inconsistent with previous statements about how much information [the company] shares. It might be better to leave it the way it is.” History anxiously awaits the outcome.

 
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