Allegations of intrusive data collection by the National Security Agency have "shocked" and "outraged" executives at Google, according to chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt.
"I was shocked that the NSA would do this -- perhaps a violation of law but certainly a violation of mission," Schmidt told CNN. "This is clearly an overstep."
Schmidt was speaking just days after documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has apparently tapped into the fiber optic cables that carry data between the servers of major American tech companies including Google and Yahoo.
Internet companies commonly send massive amounts of data between secure servers around the world, and security analysts have warned that a determined intelligence agency might be able to redirect, or copy, the information. Google said last week that it has "long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping" and is now working to extend the encryption of internal traffic.
First reported by the Washington Post, the documents indicate that the NSA was able to collect hundreds of millions of records over the course of a month in this manner. According to the documents, the information is held for three to five days while the NSA decides which documents to keep.
Both Yahoo and Google have said they were unaware of the activities. The NSA has not specifically denied the substance of the Washington Post report.
Schmidt characterized the NSA program as an "overreach" and questioned its legality.
"Could they do it? Sure. Should they have done it? Absolutely not," Schmidt said. "From a Google perspective, any internal use of Google services is unauthorized and almost certainly illegal."
Documents leaked by Snowden have put a spotlight on interactions between tech companies and the NSA. The agency's activities have roiled governments in countries where Google and Yahoo do business, and the tech companies could be put at a competitive disadvantage as a result. The companies have also, to varying degrees, staked their reputations on an ability to safeguard user information.
Another program disclosed in recent months by Snowden revealed that the NSA can legally compel Internet companies to turn over data on foreign communications that match certain criteria.
The PRISM program is authorized under a foreign intelligence law and overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It allows the NSA to collect audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails and other documents from foreign sources.
After PRISM was revealed, Google filed a court petition demanding it be allowed to share information about government surveillance programs with the public. Google also asked for the ability to share the number of user accounts associated with those secret data requests. The company argued that a gag order barring such disclosure is a violation of its right to free speech.
Schmidt left little doubt about the company's stance, saying that the current NSA strategy is "terrible policy."
"The fact of the matter is that citizens have a right to privacy in democracies," he said.