Emails shed light on Google's work with NSA

Exchanges between NSA director and Google execs suggest cooperation on data security

Two sets of emails obtained by Al Jazeera America under a Freedom of Information Act request suggest that Google's cooperation with the National Security Agency (NSA) may have been less coerced than the company has let on.

The emails date back to June 2012 and chronicle communications between NSA director General Keith Alexander and Google executives Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin.

In one email, Alexander refers to a previous meeting between NSA and Google officials and then invites Schmidt to a four-hour "topic-specific" and "decision-oriented" classified briefing on mobile threats and security.

"Google's participation in refinement, engineering and deployment of the solutions will be essential," Alexander said in the missive.

In response, Schmidt professes his delight at meeting Alexander recently while noting his inability to attend the meeting because of a prior engagement. "Would love to see you another time," Schmidt says in an email.

Alexander's email refers to a government/industry information sharing initiative called the Enduring Security Framework (ESF), which was launched in 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Defense and the CEOs of 18 technology companies.

Alexander notes in the email that under the ESF initiative, the NSA worked with several top tech companies, including Intel, AMD, Dell, HP and Microsoft, to address a security threat in the BIOS of several enterprise systems.

In an interview on the television news program 60 Minutes last December, NSA cyber defense director Debora Plunkett outlined details of the BIOS threat referred to in the letter. Plunkett said a state-sponsored group in China created a BIOS plot to "brick", or destroy, systems in the U.S. and the NSA joined with top tech firms to address the threat.

In the email to Schmidt, Alexander also sought Google's help in addressing mobile security threats. "A group (primarily Google, Apple and Microsoft) recently came to agreement on a set of core security practices," Alexander wrote.

The classified meeting was to provide the CEOs of these companies with information on how they could mitigate specific threats to their mobile technologies, he said.

In an email addressed to Brin, Alexander expresses his appreciation for the contributions to the ESF effort made by several top Google technologists, including Vint Cerf, vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist, and Eric Grosse, vice president of security engineering. "You insights as a key member of the Defense Industrial Base are valuable to ensure that ESF's efforts have a measurable impact," Alexander aid.

A Google spokeswoman today said the company worked with a range of experts, including those from the government, to protect users from cyberattacks. "We work really hard to protect our users from cyberattacks and we talk to outside experts, including occasionally in the US government, to ensure we stay ahead of the game."

Google, like several other companies, has tried to distance itself from the NSA since the Edward Snowden leaks of classified NSA data. In public comments, Schmidt and other Google officials have portrayed any information sharing that might have occurred with the government as unwilling and legally obligated.

In an interview with CNN last fall, Schmidt blasted the NSA for violating the privacy of citizens after discovering the agency had allegedly tapped millions of data records directly from fiber optic cables linking its global data centers.

Google is also one of several tech companies to call on Congress for changes to NSA data collection activities and to ensure better privacy protections for the public.

Google's downplaying of any cooperation with the NSA is understandable considering the widespread concern caused by the Snowden leaks.

For instance, revelations that security vendor RSA had allegedly helped the NSA build a backdoor into one of its encryption products in exchange for $10 million have several damaged the company's reputation and credibility in the industry.

In Google's case, the concern is that customers of its cloud services will be scared away if the company is seen to play by an active role in the NSA's data collection activities. So far, Google, like other technology vendors, has insisted that the only circumstances under which is has provided customer data to the government is when it has been served with a court order or legally enforceable request.

Since the Snowden leaks, the company has actively campaigned for the right to be able to disclose specific details of government requests for data. The company has argued that greater transparency is needed to assuage customer concerns over its role in the NSA's data collection activities.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

Tags U.S. Department of DefenseNational Security AgencynsaintelgovernmentGovernment/IndustriesprivacyHPDepartment of Homeland SecurityDellGooglesecurityMicrosoft

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