Kicking Trust in the Pants: NSA had Close Relationship with Apple, Google

The idea that Apple, Google, and other tech companies have always distanced themselves from the NSA may not be accurate thanks to emails that recently surfaced. The emails show communication between Google executives and the NSA, plus they mention other companies, including Apple, Microsoft, and HP, undermining the trust companies have been working so hard to maintain after the NSA's wide spread surveillance tactics were uncovered.

Emails show NSA had a closer relationship with tech companies than originally thoughtEmails show NSA had a closer relationship with tech companies than originally thought

In an email from June 2012, NSA director General Keith Alexander invited Google's Eric Schmidt to what he called a classified threat briefing to be held at a secure location near San Jose, California. The topic of discussion, according to Al Jazeera America, would focus on mobile threats and security.

General Alexander went on to say,

A group (primarily Google, Apple and Microsoft) recently came to agreement on a set of core security principles. When we reach this point in our projects we schedule a classified briefing for the CEOs of key companies to provide them a brief on the specific threats we believe can be mitigated and to seek their commitment for their organization to move ahead... Google's participation in refinement, engineering and deployment of the solutions will be essential.

That doesn't necessarily mean the companies were meeting with the NSA to set up secret back doors into their servers, or hand over private information from customers, but it does establish that many tech companies were meeting with the agency voluntarily. Based on the General's choice of words, it sounds like the meeting Mr. Schmidt was invited to was more about enhancing device-level security, and that the agency had been actively working with companies to improve PC security, too.

His email went on to say, "Over the last 18 months, we (primarily Intel, AMD, HP, Dell and Microsoft on the industry side) completed an effort to secure the BIOS of enterprise platforms to address a threat in that area."

Considering the agency's reputation for exploiting whatever it can to gain access to email exchanges and other personal information that should otherwise remain private, however, it's hard to see NSA meetings of this sort as purely altruistic. For companies like Apple, Google and HP, interacting with the NSA may have been a necessary evil and a way to try to better understand what the agency was up to, and to discover which tactics it used to hack into corporate servers holding private customer data.

What we can tell from email exchanges like these is that the NSA was working on its wide spread surveillance program at least as far back as 2009, and has had some level of cooperation from big tech companies. Companies may have worked with the NSA in an effort improve overall security for their customers, but it doesn't help instill trust in end users.

Regardless of what companies like Google, Apple and HP say their intentions were during NSA interactions, that association wears thin on consumer's trust, and that's a problem businesses will have a hard time overcoming.