Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the U.S. government screwed up its public relations efforts concerning the National Security Agency’s surveillance policies.
“Frankly, I think that the government blew it,” said Zuckerberg on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “They blew it on communicating the balance of what they were going for with this.”
Zuckerberg says that the government’s initial response to the NSA revelations from Edward Snowden put U.S. Internet companies that operate on a global scale, like Facebook does, at risk of losing confidence from global users. The government claimed that it did not spy on American citizens, but made no efforts to hide its surveillance of anyone living outside the United States.
“Oh that’s really gonna help companies that are trying to serve people around the world,” a sarcastic Zuckerberg said. “… I think that was really bad.”
“It’s our job to protect everyone who uses Facebook. It’s our government’s job to protect all of us, our freedom and the economy. They did a bad job at balancing this.”
Facebook is one of four technology companies currently suing the government in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which rules on the legality of NSA activities in secret, in an attempt to gain the legal ability to disclose more information about the government’s requests for user data under a top-secret NSA program called PRISM. The social network recently released its first “Global Government Requests Report,” which showed that government entities within the U.S. issued 11,000 to 12,000 requests concerning between 20,000 and 21,000 users, during the first half of 2013. Facebook says it complied with those requests 79 percent of the time.
Zuckerberg explained during his interview that Facebook had to convince the U.S. government to allow it to reveal the aggregate number of data requests it receives. While admitting that he does not believe that the information provided in its requests report gives users the transparency they deserve, Zuckerberg says it still gives users valuable information.
“Because of the transparency that we pushed for, now people can know – and I think they deserve to know – that the number of requests the government is making is closer to 1,000 … and definitely not 10 million, or 100 million,” said Zuckerberg. He added: “We aren’t psyched that we had to sue in order to get this [level of disclosure]. But we think people deserve to know this. And we just take this really seriously.”
The other three companies suing the government over NSA practices are Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, all of which are bound by law to not discuss their alleged cooperation with the NSA. Yahoo has filed suit over this matter twice, first in 2007, when PRISM went into effect.
All four of these companies were implicated in the initial reports on PRISM, the program through which the government collects chat logs, photographs, emails, and other data from Web users. A total of nine companies were named in the PRISM documents obtained by the Washington Post. The documents identify PRISM as the program “used most” by the NSA to obtain raw intelligence.
Facebook currently collects data on its 1.1 billion monthly active users. Zuckerberg says his company plans to use its social graph, which maps the connections between users and their various interests and other personal details, to gain an understanding of “everything.”
“We want to, over the next five or 10 years, to really take on a roadmap to understand everything, really, in the world, semantically, and kind of map everything out,” he said.
When asked about his company’s data collection practices, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s role in protecting Americans’ privacy is different than the government’s role.
“We take our role very seriously,” he said. “It’s our job to protect everyone who uses Facebook. It’s our government’s job to protect all of us, our freedom and the economy. They did a bad job at balancing this.”