Security

PRISM program lets FBI, NSA secretly mine data from U.S. tech companies (report) (updated)

[Updated at 6:32 p.m. with response from a senior member of the Obama administration. --Ed.]

The news that Verizon is supplying a wealth of call data to the National Security Agency is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Washington Post reported today that a number of other tech companies are participating in a top secret data mining program for the FBI and NSA, dubbed PRISM.

The companies are Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, according to an “internal presentation” for senior NSA analysts that the Washington Post obtained. Dropbox was next on the list for the feds to tap. The program allegedly enables the feds to gather information from these companies’ servers directly. The data siphoned off includes photos, videos, e-mail, documents, audio files, and connection logs.

In an e-mailed statement to the National Journal, a senior official from the Obama administration said:

The program [PRISM] is subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.

We’re reaching out to the companies named in the report for comment, but we haven’t heard from all of them yet.

The Post reports that PRISM has existed since 2007, actively collecting information for the last five years. Late Thursday, The Guardian released a secret court order that showed Verizon’s participation in a similar data collection program. Verizon was ordered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court to hand over call information that included the phone numbers of those involved in a phone call, how long the call lasted, when it was made, and potentially even where it occurred.

The Wall Street Journal is also reporting that Sprint and AT&T are also involved in similar surveillance programs, according to its sources. In 2006, Wired published a number of documents from an ex-AT&T employee who claimed the telecommunications provider was involved in “an illegal National Security Agency domestic surveillance program.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stated in today’s Journal report that, “Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn’t anything that is brand new.”

The White House responded to criticism of its Verizon program, saying it’s necessary to protect the U.S. population from terrorism. It has repeatedly based its right to do such surveillance on its interpretation of the Patriot Act, which gives maintains gives executive branch broad powers to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists. Today, however, the author of the Patriot Act said that the government is going too far.

It now seems that Verizon monitoring just the beginning of a much bigger spying program by U.S. intelligence officers, that the Washington Post reports this has been a critical part of President Barack Obama’s daily briefing.

The ease with which the government can allegedly monitor suspected sources is chilling. “With a few clicks and an affirmation that the subject is believed to be engaged in terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, an analyst obtains full access to Facebook’s ‘extensive search and surveillance capabilities against the variety of online social networking services,'” the Post reports.

“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the Post quotes a government officer as saying.

It’s quite likely, although the Post report doesn’t address this detail, that the data mining operation is connected with the construction of a massive, $2 billion high-security  datacenter in Utah scheduled to open in September.

The data collected in PRISM makes up for one in seven of NSA intelligence reports, according to the obtained presentation.

See below for a sampling of the NSA slides obtained by the Post.

Image of FBI logo: Federal Bureau of Investigations/Flickr


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