NSA e-mails purport to show a ‘close’ relationship with Google. Maybe, maybe not.


(Mark Lennihan / AP)

In the summer of 2012, about a year before former contractor Edward Snowden revealed surprising new information about the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the head of the spy agency reportedly traded e-mails with top Google execs 0n cyber-security issues.

Then-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander told Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt that he was organizing a meeting of tech CEOs in Silicon Valley for Aug. 8, 2012, and he extended an invitation to Google, according to the e-mails, which were obtained by Al Jazeera America. Earlier that year, Alexander had invited Google co-founder Sergey Brin to a similar event and thanked him for "contributions" from other top Googlers, such as Vint Cerf, who is credited with developing the Internet.

The e-mails offer a rare look at the communications between Google and the NSA. It's a relationship that has been prickly lately, given Snowden's disclosures. But the two entities have worked closely in the past on developing defenses against cyber-attack, according to Al Jazeera America.

The 2012 meeting concerned the Enduring Security Framework, a group of more than  a dozen U.S. corporate chief executives and top officials from the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. Participating executives reportedly received detailed briefings on cybersecurity and worked with the government to secure technological systems.

"Eric," Alexander wrote to Schmidt before launching into his invitation, according to Al Jazeera America. "It was good seeing you recently after the meeting earlier this month."

Schmidt replied that he couldn't make the upcoming meeting.

"General Keith," he wrote, according to Al Jazeera America, "so great to see you.. ! I'm unlikely to be in california that week so I'm sorry I can't attend (will be on the east coast). Would love to see you another time. Thank you !"

The exchange illustrates how Google, like many other U.S. tech companies, worked with the NSA on cybersecurity issues, an effort that has been previously reported. "We work really hard to protect our users from cyber attacks, and we talk to outside experts, including occasionally in the U.S. government, to ensure we stay ahead of the game," Google told The Washington Post in a statement.

Brin's exchange with Alexander could be described as cordial: "hi keith," he wrote, according to Al Jazeera America. "looking forward to meeting with you next week. fyi, my best e-mail address to use is [redacted]. the one your email went to — sergey.brin@google.com — i don't really check."

It's difficult to conclude from the e-mails that Google and the NSA shared a "close" relationship, as Al Jazeera suggests — just that there was some contact between the agency and the company's executives before the Snowden leaks.

In a statement, the NSA said the agency "advocates for the best vulnerability mitigations."

"We continue to work with, as appropriate, federal organizations, academia, and the private sector to enhance cybersecurity for the good of the nation," the NSA said. "No one organization has the resources to do the job alone."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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