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On the alleged partnership between NSA and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).

This AFP piece is reinforcing the widely-held opinion that Google is an evil corporation, one who seeks to violate your privacy. This time, they are implicated in sharing user data with the NSA. And I'd like to demonstrate why that's inaccurate.

Let's start with some excerpts pertaining to this alleged "partnership," or "alliance," between the NSA and Google, as the AFP refers to it.

The appeals court agreed that the NSA can reject the request, and does not even have to confirm whether it has any arrangement with the Internet giant.

"Any information pertaining to the relationship between Google and NSA would reveal protected information about NSA's implementation of its information assurance mission," Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in the appeals opinion.

…Privacy advocates already critical of Google policies regarding saving user data and targeting ads to match online behavior patterns fear that an alliance with the spy network could put private information at risk.

Reactions along the lines of Oh my god! Google's in bed with the NSA and spying on Americans!, are understandable.

That's because important details have been left out, and others have been spun. The AFP hints at, briefly, but makes no effort to explain critical details of the case. Such as, how did this whole thing start?

The appeals court agreed that the NSA can reject the request, and does not even have to confirm whether it has any arrangement with the Internet giant.

"Any information pertaining to the relationship between Google and NSA would reveal protected information about NSA's implementation of its information assurance mission," Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in the appeals opinion.

The non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a formal request to make public documents related to the dealings, and said much of the information had already been in news media.

The request stemmed from a January 2010 cyber attack on Google that primarily targeted the Gmail email accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

So, the NSA "alliance" with Google was allegedly formed after the 2010 attack by Chinese hackers, which targeted US personnel and local activists in China who were using Gmail (along with other services, whose parent companies were less forthcoming than G).

The AFP goes on to say:

The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reported that Google had contacted the NSA immediately following the attack.

According to news reports, the NSA agreed to help Google analyze the attacks in a bid to better protect the California-based search company and its users from future intrusions.

The implication is clear. Google is the one who initiated this "relationship" or "alliance."

But there's a big problem here. The Gmail hacks only happened due to "backdoor access" mandated by the US government, according to this piece by Bruce Shcneier at CNN:

Google made headlines when it went public with the fact that Chinese hackers had penetrated some of its services, such as Gmail, in a politically motivated attempt at intelligence gathering. The news here isn't that Chinese hackers engage in these activities or that their attempts are technically sophisticated - we knew that already - it's that the U.S. government inadvertently aided the hackers.

In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access.

It's an intriguing, almost unrecognized aspect of the controversy. I wasn't sure if Mr. Schneier's article was legitimate. But a number of sites seem to confirm the story. Here's ComputerWorld:

That's because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s***, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems],'" he said.

That, in turn led to a Christmas Eve meeting led by Google co-founder Larry Page to assess the situation. Three weeks later, the company had decided that things were serious enough that it would risk walking away from the largest market of Internet users in the world.

And here's a somewhat critical take at SlashDot, to balance things out a bit.

The implications, if the information primarily cited in the CNN piece are true, are tremendous.

Put yourself in the shoes of an email service provider, or a search engine, or both, for a minute. The government requires you to install backdoor access for them to monitor user data (it should be noted that this is in compliance with search warrants and the Patriot Act, so is technically legal).

One day, hackers break into the government's backdoor system, which is layered on top of your finely crafted machine like a pile of refuse. The hackers access your users' data, and you decide to "do the right thing" and reach out to the relevant agencies, as they likely want to know their hackable ware has been hacked. Not to mention that you don't exactly have a choice in the matter, and in some cases can't even speak publicly about the USG's role in any of this, due to mandatory, automatic gag orders written into the laws.

The media, for whatever reason, decides to go ahead and declare you as an accomplice to government spying. As if you had a choice. And no matter what you do to attempt to provide transparency, even if it's miles ahead of the competition, you're the bad guy now.

*Edit 12:46am est, 5/12/2012

I came across this piece on Wired's Danger Room, and couldn't resist adding some of the quotes. Here they are:

A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the National Security Agency's decision to withhold from the public documents confirming or denying any relationship it has with Google concerning encryption and cybersecurity.

That's despite the fact that Google itself admitted it turned to "U.S. authorities," which obviously includes the NSA, after the search giant's Chinese operation was deeply hacked. Former NSA chief Mike McConnell told the Washington Post that collaboration between the NSA and private companies like Google was "inevitable."

David Kravets, please do better journalism.

Source: Google As The Bad Guy