Exclusive: Google’s chief legal officer tells Channel 4 News his company has written to the US attorney general to be able to provide more detail about court orders requiring it to release user data.
With President Obama and some of America’s best-known high-tech firms under attack at home and abroad over a vast surveillance programme that snooped on emails, phone calls and personal data, elected representatives in Europe are demanding to know if their governments allowed the US to spy on their citizens or violated local privacy rules.
In his first interview on British television, Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond tells Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long his company has contacted the US attorney general with a view to being able to give out more information about the court orders which force it to release users’ data.
Below is a transcript of Jackie Long’s interview with David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer
David Drummond: I can appreciate that there are questions as a result of these revelations, or these articles, that have come out.
I can tell you that we were as surprised, indeed shocked, by both the Verizon phone order and this notion of a Prism programme, as everyone else.
Jackie Long: You say surprised and shocked. What about horrified? As horrified as everybody else?
DD: Absolutely. I mean, we were quite surprised. And these allegations that were in the reports, that we somehow are participating in a programme that’s doing broad-scale online surveillance of our users, are just simply false.
And we want to make that absolutely clear – there is no direct access, there is no indirect access, there is no back door, there’s no drop box, there’s no equipment installed on our servers. Period. We’re not part of that, so we wanted to make that very, very clear.
JL: You do, however, acknowledge in your statement that within the confines of the law you have handed over data. How exactly does that work? I mean, do you hand it over? Do the NSA agents come into your office?
DD: Yeah, sure. We get these requests. We treat them very seriously. We have lawyers review them. We’re willing to push back if they’re overly broad.
And what happens is, when we determine that we need to comply, we deliver the information. That is to say, we typically deliver it electronically, occasionally in person – but we deliver it to them. There’s no access to our systems where the government is pulling data from us.
And here’s the important thing. We serve hundreds of millions of users. Only a tiny fraction of our users have ever been subject to one of these requests that might touch on their information at Google.
So it’s very clear that this is not a broad-based programme.
JL: The information that the National Security Agency has given out, is it wrong? Are they lying?
DD: Well, I’m not sure that they’ve really addressed this point. And the purpose of our letter today is, we would like to tell you even more about these requests that we get. We’re unable to do so because this process is classified.
We are able to say that we’ve received them, and I’ve said that only a tiny fraction of our users are affected by this. But we would like to give more information, and we are asking the government to allow us to do that. We think transparency is the best thing here for everyone.
JL: I’ll come on to the letter I know you’ve sent to the attorney general in a moment.
But you talk about transparency. Now, the administration says that Americans aren’t targeted – this is all about non-Americans. Many British users feel or worry that they’ve been affected. What can you say to them? How can you reassure them?
DD: Well, I think you’ll have to talk to the government about this, about their views about it. But what I can say is that we get specific orders. They are under the law in the US, targeted orders. As I said, only a fraction of our users are covered by them, and we take them very seriously and there is no kind of general programme that we participate in.
JL: The big debate now is whether Edward Snowden, the man who leaked this information, who raised this information, is whether he’s a hero or a traitor. Where do you stand on that?
DD: Well, look, I think it’s a good thing that this is indeed shedding more light on this.
JL: So a hero?
DD: We were surprised… We were surprised by the breadth… (sic).
I don’t know if I can make a call about whether, you know, there’s still a lot of information to come. And, you know, we don’t know what the whole genesis of the slides that were shown in the newspaper is, and so forth.
But what I’m saying is that transparency about these things is a good thing. If that’s come out of this and we get more transparency, and more of a debate about what the scope of these kinds of requests should be, more of an open dialogue or discussion and debate about how far the government should go, and to do that without all the secrecy, you know – that would be a good outcome.
JL: But President Obama’s defence of this all the way along has been that Prism, this surveillance project, is a necessary evil in order to maintain security. Do you agree with him on that?
DD: Well, look, I think national security’s important, and we understand that the government has to do some of these things. But we think that you can protect national security and still protect privacy and have the right balance.
I think, you know, right now it feels to us that there’s not enough transparency so that we can have the debate.
JL: And on that question, I mean, do you feel that in a way that Google have been used by the National Security Agency – because this is a crisis for you now, isn’t it? It’s a crisis of trust with your users.
DD: Well, I don’t know that I would put it that way, but it’s very important. There are a lot of mis-impressions that are out there, and we feel very strongly that we’ve got to set the record straight – and that’s what we’re about doing.
JL: So very briefly, you’ve written to the attorney general today. Sorry to interrupt you. But what is it you’re asking for, very briefly, if you would?
DD: Sure. What we’re asking for is the ability to say how many of these orders we receive, these requests for information, and what they cover, so we can provide more detail. And I’m sure that if we’re able to do that, then you’ll really be able to understand that this is not, as has been alleged, some kind of a general surveillance programme but something that’s very, very limited.
JL: But you do hand over information you’re not able to tell us about.
DD: We can’t tell you the details of that – that’s correct. We’d like to give you more information. As I said, we have nothing to hide about this.
JL: David Drummond from Google, thank you very much for joining us.