The National Security Agency and FBI are directly tapping into the servers of nine major internet companies to access users' personal information, including emails, videos, and pictures, according to The Washington Post and The Guardian.
That suggests that the Obama administration's clandestine surveillance of Americans' personal correspondences — part of its counterterrorism program — goes much deeper than was previously thought.
According to the Post, the NSA and FBI, in a program codenamed PRISM, have been accessing the central servers for Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. There were plans to soon begin monitoring Dropbox, the web-based storage site, as well.
Notably, Twitter is not mentioned in a top secret document detailing the program.
The program, established in 2007, has seen "exponential growth" since its inception, such that it now regularly collects reams of personal information to "track a person's movements and contacts over time." NSA slides obtained by the Post show that the program pulls data on social networking profiles, file transfers, video conferences, voice chats, and "notifications of target activity — logins, etc."
From the Post:
An internal presentation on the Silicon Valley operation, intended for senior analysts in the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to the President's Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year. According to the briefing slides, obtained by The Washington Post, "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil. [Washington Post]
"They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," said an anonymous intelligence officer who allegedly provided the Post with the materials.
NBC has also since confirmed the existence of PRISM, though a government official told the network it was more a "data collection" than "data mining" program.
The disclosure of PRISM comes one day after a Guardian report unveiled a top secret memo that authorized the NSA to indiscriminately pull phone records for millions of Verizon customers, including the duration of phone calls, the numbers of both parties involved, and geolocation information.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA wasn't just spying on Verizon users, but on AT&T and Sprint Nextel subscribers as well. Further, the Journal said the NSA has been keeping logs on credit-card transactions, too.
The Journal notes that the phone surveillance program appears to have the approval of "all three branches of the U.S. government." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, "Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new.''
Several of the tech companies said to be monitored under PRISM have denied any involvement in the program.
In a statement to The Guardian, a Google spokesperson said:
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. [Guardian]
A spokesperson for Apple told The Guardian that the company had "never heard" of PRISM.
Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer, said in a statement to Forbes, "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."
Yahoo and Microsoft have also made similar, very carefully worded denials.
Tommy Vietor, Obama's former National Security Council spokesman, needled outraged Twitter users following the program's disclosure.
I am so pissed about invasions of my privacy that I'm going to tweet about it and post an angry open letter on my non-private Facebook page
— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) June 6, 2013
Earlier on Thursday, The New York Times released a scathing editorial, and accused Obama of "overreaching in the use of his powers."
Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency's phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability.
The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. [New York Times]