Report: Tech companies didn’t allow feds “direct access” to their servers, but they agreed to help

Several major internet companies may not have given the federal government “direct access” to their servers to facilitate snooping for personal data, as was initially alleged by a report earlier this week, but many of them did agree to set up special access to their data when requested through secret court orders, according to a report in the New York Times late Friday.

Companies such as Google (s goog), Facebook (s fb) and Apple (s aapl) all claimed this week that they had never heard of a National Security Agency program called PRISM that reportedly gave intelligence analysts access to all kinds of personal data stored on the servers of the largest internet companies on the planet. But while the NSA may not have shared the code name for the project, first disclosed in reports from The Washington Post and the Guardian Thursday, “the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key,” the Times reported, citing “people briefed on the negotiations” between tech companies and the government. And while companies “bristled” at the request, they acquiesced.

Facebook — whose founder, Mark Zuckerberg, slammed what he called “outrageous press reports” in a statement Friday — actually built a system for the NSA that allowed it to securely transmit data to the government if requested under the FISA law, according to the report. It’s not clear what any of the other companies named as having negotiated with the government — Apple, AOL (s aol), Google, Microsoft (s msft), Paltalk and Yahoo (s yhoo) — may have done to facilitate access to user data.

The companies’ carefully worded denials were likely constructed because the employees tasked with carrying out these systems “are not allowed to discuss the details even with others at the company, and in some cases have national security clearance,” the report said.

Twitter, which many noted was conspicuous in its absence from the list of companies named in the original reports, reportedly declined to provide the federal government with any assistance in getting access to user data in response to legal requests. “While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not, which is why Twitter could decline to do so,” the report said.

Our tracking page on the unfolding PRISM story has a thorough explanation of the background to this report.

This post was updated at 11:43pm with the correct name of the NSA, the National Security Agency.