Tech company & telecom reactions to PRISM

Here’s the running list of comment the key players have given CNN on PRISM.

And here’s our explainer on the current state of speculation: How PRISM worked — 3 theories

Microsoft (also Skype): “We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”

Yahoo: ”Yahoo! takes users’ privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network.”

Facebook: “We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law.”

Mark Zuckerberg has a longer post about the “outrageous press reports.” 

Apple:  “We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”

Google (also YouTube): "Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data."

Google has a blog post here: “What the …?

AOL: ”We do not have any knowledge of the Prism program. We do not disclose user information to government agencies without a court order, subpoena or formal legal process, nor do we provide any government agency with access to our servers.” (posted on AOL’s blog)

PalTalk: "We have not heard of PRISM. Paltalk exercises extreme care to protect and secure users’ data, only responding to court orders as required to by law. Paltalk does not provide any government agency with direct access to its servers."

Is it possible the intercepts are happening at the telecom level and the tech companies themselves really didn’t know? Here’s what the nation’s biggest ISPs had to say when we asked for their comments on PRISM involvement.

Verizon: “We have no comment.” 

AT&T: “We have no comment.”

Time Warner Cable: “We are not familiar with the NSA’s PRISM program.”

Comcast: “Comcast learned of the PRISM program in media reports.  We only respond to government requests for customer information pursuant to legal process and have not received any court orders or subpoenas related to PRISM.”

And to deal with one conspiracy theory that popped up this morning about Palantir, a government contractor deeply involved in spooky stuff: they say their Prism system is unrelated to NSA’s. Here’s the statement they gave CNN:

Palintir: “Palantir’s Prism platform is completely unrelated to any US government program of the same name. Prism is Palantir’s name for a data integration technology used in the Palantir Metropolis platform (formerly branded as Palantir Finance).  This software has been licensed to banks and hedge funds for quantitative analysis and research. You can read more about Palantir Metropolis on our website and explore the platform here:

A fun Bitcoin statistic

17.6 petaflops: Computing power of Titan, the world’s top supercomputer 

162 petaflops: Combined computing power of all 500 of the world’s most powerful supercomputers

1,085 petaflops: Current computing power of the computers linked together in Bitcoin’s network

(Yes I know petaflops aren’t really a good measure of Bitcoin hashpower and that the new custom ASIC miners can’t do floating-point calculations and so technically run at 0 flops. It’s a thought experiment. Play along. -Stacy)

I bought my first (tiny fraction of a) bitcoin



I’ve been tracking and occasionally writing about bitcoin for a year, but I’d never actually bought or tried to spend one. Clearly, I wasn’t going to make it out of a weekend at Bitcoin 2013 without changing that.

People here are evangelical about the cyber currency and get really, really excited about showing newbies how easy it is to take the first step away from Ben Bernanke’s printing press. 

If you’re not surrounded by Bitcoin advocates, it’s not quite as simple as they’d like: Putting U.S. cash in and getting bitcoins out through an exchange service like Coinbase, BitInstant or Mt.Gox (hold off on that one for now) requires waiting a few days to link your bank account (Coinbase) or going to a bank or money-transfer point like a convenience store (BitInstant). 

If you’re buying directly from a bitcoin holder, though, you can do the whole thing in about five minutes. “I’ll show you how,” said my very patient guide and moneychanger, Julian Tosh of CoinBus.

First step: I needed a software “wallet” to hold my coin. There are dozens if not hundreds of options. Julian recommended I start with BitcoinSpinner, a free, well-regarded Android app with a very simple user interface. (Apple doesn’t allow Bitcoin wallets into the iTunes store, but a few people have made it through with sneaky workarounds. Hint: The “Paytunia” app stores more than just euros.) 

Once I had BitcoinSpinner installed, Julian suggested I immediately back up my private key. Bitcoin wallets have two key pieces of information: Your public key, which allows other people to send you coins, and your private key, which gives you access to your stash. It’s literally the keys to the kingdom. Anyone with your private key can spend your loot, and if you lose it, it’s irrevocably gone. The Web is filled with tales of sadness and woe related to lost or hacked private keys.

I backed mine up by copying the private-key QR code to my phone’s clipboard and emailing it to myself. All set.

Next, the purchase. BitcoinSpinner’s interface is very, very easy. It shows your Bitcoin address, your balance, and offers two options: Send Bitcoins and Transaction History. I tapped the QR code icon for my Bitcoin address to make it large and readable.

Julian hovered his phone over mine, opened his Bitcoin wallet software and snagged the code. His wallet offered two transfer options: You can specify an amount in bitcoins or in a traditional currency like U.S. cash. Julian told it to zap me $5. The software ran the conversion on the fly, using Mt. Gox’s rate, and sent me a sliver of a bitcoin: 0.04053244 BTC. (For that, it charged a transfer fee of 0.0005 BTC — about a nickel.) 

I set down my drink, fished a $5 bill out of my purse to give Julian, and admired my newly diversified financial portfolio. Now let’s see if Mint can track my BTC stash. -Stacy


Why Design Matters: If Snow Fall Were Published in a Standard Template


I am in beautiful Bergen, Norway, this week for the Nordic Media Festival. I gave a talk this morning on digital storytelling and, of course, everyone wanted to talk about Snow Fall.

As part of the presentation — and to drive home my point about design — I mocked up what Snow Fall might have been had our brilliant design, graphics and video teams not taken this project on.

Since a couple people asked for it, I decided to post the images here.


Doesn’t really grab you like the actual piece, does it?

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How to turn Bitcoin code into a Ben Bernanke portrait



Earlier this week I caught wind of a BitcoinTalk thread about coded messages in Bitcoin’s blockchain. How does that even work? I wondered. 

Many hours of technical geekery later, I had my head around the basics. For those who want to play along at home, here’s how you can de-code the messages hackers and pranksters have intentionally hidden in the Bitcoin chain. For my working test, I used Dan Kaminsky’s 2011 hack, when he embedded a tribute to his friend Len Sassaman in the blockchain.

First, I pulled up a record of the actual transaction Kaminsky made, as identified here in a BitcoinTalk thread. I used the raw transaction view so I could easily look at all the hashes at once.

I used a text editor to strip out all the extraneous stuff and get down to just the hex code. (I did it by hand. Not recommended.) That gives you this:















































































Then I went hunting for a hex-to-text viewer. I found one on Plug the hex string in there and hit convert, and you get the text & ASCII art Dan designed.

I used the same method to check this week’s much more serious allegations that someone had used dummy transactions to encode porn links into the blockchain. Using the transactions scintill identified in his technical analysis post, and my same hex-to-text converter, I confirmed that yep, there’s bad things hiding in those bitcoin transactions.

The full list of all the hidden messages in the Bitcoin blockchain is pretty hysterical. “I LIKE TURTLES” is probably my favorite for its sheer randomness, but I also love the back-and-forth tussle with the hacking Christian evangelist. In response to a long, long deluge of religious propaganda (“O my God! I firmly believe that Thou art one God in three Divine persons, …”), people started coding messages barking back at the alleged perpetrator: “FFS Luke-Jr leave the blockchain alone!” -Stacy

The coolest Yahoo rap you’ve ever heard

Earnings season can get a bit tedious for reporters, who end up staying late (at least on the east coast!) to field after-the-closing-bell conference calls that run for about an hour.

So we take the laughs where we can get them! Last week’s earnings amusement came courtesy of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who joked about the lame hold music before the call (she didn’t realize her mic was live).

Don’t worry, Marissa: Your knight in shining armor is here! It’s — who else? — Snow, the rapper whose claim to fame is the 1992 one-hit wonder “Informer.”

According to the New York Post, music licensing company Jingle Punks (creators of music for NBC show“The Voice”) commissioned the bizarre project.

Listen above to the song (which isn’t really rap, I guess) and sing along to the chorus, which has wormed its way into my brain on loop: “You’re on hold / Hold at Yahoo / Gimme a second / While I patch you through.” - Julianne