It looks like Greenwald & co simply misunderstood an NSA slide, most likely because they don’t have the technical background to know that “servers” is a generic word and doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “the main servers on which a company’s customer-facing services run”. The “servers” mentioned in the slide are just lockboxes used for secure data transfer. They have nothing to do with the process of deciding which requests to comply with — they’re just a means of securely & efficiently delivering information once a company has decided to do so.In essence the NSA's access to "servers" in Glenn's slide doesn't mean that the NSA gathers everything that everyone does on the internet. It just means that some companies like Facebook have set up secure server "lock boxes" to transfer specific pieces of data in accordance with specific FISA Court ordered warrants.
As another Tech blogger (also via Rick Perlstein) put it:
In fairness, the NSA's and Obama administration hasn't helped by being so secretive about this program even after it was exposed. And neither have politicians calling people traitors or the media covering the story as a soap opera completely with the dish on Edward Snowden's girlfriend.The difference between these two explanations isn’t some nuanced distinction that only tech geeks should care about. This is the difference between companies voluntarily giving the government direct and unilateral access to arbitrary customer data and companies merely complying with the law in a technically efficient way that doesn’t change the nature of the data received by the government. If Greenwald and MacAskill have documents or detailed statements from Snowden that provide illumination on this point, they should share this information. Because as it stands now, the only way their story is true is if all the companies involved are lying, and the NSA is lying, and Senators Feinstein and Rogers are lying, and the President is lying, and the New York Times’ sources are lying.This certainly isn’t impossible. Much more likely in my estimation is that Greenwald’s use of “direct” and “unilateral” was technically imprecise or the result of exaggerations from his source.
To be sure I know very little about computers and servers and have never even read these blogs before, so I am a far cry from someone who could be called an expert on these affairs and could be wrong. But I do know a bit about political media and people like Glenn Greenwald. At the very least Greenwald owes us an explanation on what specifically "access" to "servers" mean, and if he is shown to be wrong a formal retraction is needed as well. Interestingly enough when people started raising these questions to Glenn he went into full on lawyer mode (Glenn is an attorney, not a journalist or IT person by training) and gave a telling response, "It means what it says: that they can take things directly from the servers of those companies. What else could it mean?" Note how he's not answering the question of what type of serves they are, and also adds in a little "babe in the woods" routine as well. Of course this might just be cause Glenn is ignorant of the obscure but important technical details here. But it also looks to me like someone trying to cover their rear ends after their "bombshell" story looks more and more like it was built on a foundation of sand.
More than just why I think you should read Greenwald with some skepticism, I think this is a great example of why it's bad to have only "politics" reporters cover highly specialized realms like national security and technology. Glenn's classic MO is to pick an issue, get all worked up about it, and try to find proof that someone (usually Obama, almost always a Democrat) is bad. But while trying to find "a scandal" Glenn missed very important details that now through his whole story into doubt. It's nothing new, he doesn't know how the government works either.