In a strongly worded letter, Microsoft is pressing the Obama administration for permission to disclose more information about the U.S. government's secret program to spy on Americans' Internet activity, including how often authorities are snooping online.
"[T]he Constitution itself is suffering, and it will take the personal involvement of you or the President to set things right," Microsoft lawyer Bradford Smith wrote in an unusually emotional plea to Attorney General Eric Holder.
In June, seven major Internet companies were rocked by reports of a National Security Agency program, codenamed PRISM, that siphons email, photos and other personal information shared online, ostensibly to help government agents find and fight terrorism. Since then, Microsoft has emerged as the company most cooperative with government agents -- and thus the company with the most to lose if privacy-conscious customers flee.
On Thursday, a new batch of secret documents unearthed by The Guardian implied that Microsoft helped the NSA circumvent the company's own encryption methods. The software giant has since taken a beating in the press, even as the company claims the report contained "significant inaccuracies."
In a somewhat embarrassing irony, Microsoft had lately been heavily pushing its "Your Privacy is Our Priority" ad campaign, implicitly calling out Google for overreaching in its data collection.
Indeed, since details of the PRISM program were leaked, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other firms have been trying to outdo each other in insisting that U.S. spies don't have direct access to servers storing their customers' data.
"I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote shortly after the program went public. "Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users' data are false, period," Google chief Larry Page wrote in a post titled "What the ... ."
News of a program like PRISM, which threatens to erode trust in companies that depend on people submitting personal details of their lives, has put technology executives on a public-relations offensive. Microsoft and several other firms have indicated that they would like to reveal the volume of requests they receive from the NSA, in hopes that showing those requests are small in number will ease worried customers. But those companies are currently prohibited by law from disclosing very much information about PRISM.
Microsoft failed to receive a response from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the court that oversees PRISM, to its request for permission to release more information about its ties to the NSA. Now the company wants President Obama, a former constitutional law professor, to step in.
"As I know you appreciate, the Constitution guarantees the fundamental freedom to engage in free expression unless silence is required by a narrowly tailored, compelling Government interest," Microsoft wrote to the White House in its letter, dated Tuesday. "It’s time to face some obvious facts. Numerous documents are now in the public domain. As a result, there is no longer a compelling Government interest in stopping those of us with knowledge from sharing more information."
"If we do receive approval to share more information, we’ll publish it immediately," the company's lawyer wrote in a separate blog post.
Disclosure: The Huffington Post is owned by AOL, which has denied knowledge of the PRISM program.