NEW YORK: Revelations that the National Security Agency tapped into data from telecomms and tech companies for a secret monitoring program have forced corporations to tread carefully in addressing privacy issues with customers, PR executives say.
Earlier this week, The Guardian revealed that Verizon was ordered to hand over metadata of millions of calls to the NSA. It later emerged that the intelligence agency's monitoring program also includes data from AT&T and Sprint Nextel, purchase information from credit card providers, and records from Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and other Internet companies.
“There are times with federal, large-scale investigations when the target can't say anything. It's a really tricky situation when you are effectively silent like that,” says Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Co.
On Wednesday, Verizon tweeted a memo it issued to employees from EVP and general counsel Randy Milch. While Milch did not confirm the existence of the court order, he said Verizon protects customer privacy but must give information to authorities when compelled by a federal court. Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint Nextel had not officially commented on the issue in media reports by Friday afternoon.
“When it comes to national security issues, there is absolutely no room for any company to make any kind of voluntary disclosure or decisions beyond what's prescribed in the law. Verizon handled it as well as anyone could have, because there's nothing they can do as prescribed by law,” says Levick EVP Michael Robinson. “On the other side, it must be very frustrating for a company that has a heritage of reaching out and speaking to customers.”
Meanwhile, tech companies including Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft denied outright they had any knowledge of or participated in the NSA program.
“We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers,” Apple said in a statement to media outlets.
“If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data, we don't participate in it,” a Microsoft spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal, saying the company provides company data only when it receives “a legally binding order or subpoena to do so.”
One strategy that tech and telecomms companies could use to explain the issue to customers and employees is to enlist third-party experts to speak on behalf of the industry, McCown says. These “ambassadors” could include industry analysts, former employees, or trade associations, she adds.
“Given the fact that they're effectively muted, there needs to be surrogates deployed to engage media and also on social media. They can share facts and speak as objective third-party sources, not on behalf of one company but on behalf of the entire industry,” she explains. “This is a big story that's not going away.”
This is not the first time that phone companies have confronted privacy issues related to national security investigations. In 2006, USAToday reported that Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T had provided call records of millions of Americans to the NSA.