New secret files reveal NSA has direct access to systems of top U.S. Internet giants for data mining
By End the Lie
Thought yesterday’s revelation of Verizon being ordered to hand over records for all U.S. calls to the National Security Agency (NSA) was bad? Think again.
Today documents were unveiled showing that the NSA and FBI are directly tapping into the servers of nine of the largest U.S. Internet companies since 2007 under a secret program called PRISM in order to mine data including e-mails, documents, connection logs, audio, video and photographs.
Given this newest information, it is important to note that the connection between the intelligence community and Google in particular has been thoroughly documented. Just last year a U.S. appeals court prevented the public from ever knowing the details of that relationship.
It also allows the NSA to collect search history, file transfers and even live chats, according to the document which the Guardian verified as authentic. Unsurprisingly, the FBI is involved as well, acting as an intermediary between other agencies and the tech giants.
The data allows analysts in the U.S. intelligence community to keep tabs on a target’s movements and contacts over times, according to The Washington Post.
The document is a 42-slide PowerPoint presentation classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies, apparently used to get intelligence operatives up to speed with what PRISM can do.
The document most notably says that the program is capable of “collection directly from the servers” which means that the intelligence community doesn’t have to jump through the pesky Constitutional loops.
The companies participating, in order of entry into the program are, “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, [and] Apple,” according to the document. Dropbox is listed as “coming soon” and the presentation states that the NSA seeks to “expand collection services from existing providers.”
The presentation itself states that the program is operated with the assistance of all the companies involved but, unsurprisingly, all of the companies that responded to the Guardian denied knowledge of PRISM or any program like it.
“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,” Google said in a statement. “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.”
Unsurprisingly, government officials would not comment for the story, according to The Washington Post.
The technology is clearly being heavily used. The presentation stated that PRISM data was cited in a whopping 1,477 articles last year alone.
“NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as the leading source of raw data, according to the presentation, making up almost 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
This latest revelation is quite troubling because it shows that the NSA, which is supposed to be engaged in foreign intelligence, is “reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil,” as The Washington Post put it.
However, the PRISM program isn’t as much a dragnet as the type of surveillance revealed yesterday.
The Post reports that under current rules, the agency doesn’t collect all of the data, though they are able to pull out anything they like.
Analysts access the Internet giants’ data stream from a web portal at Fort Meade where they key in search terms or “selectors” which are “designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s ‘foreignness.’”
When the Post calls it “not a very stringent test,” they are wildly understating the matter. The presentation states that analysts should consider U.S. content collected accidently “nothing to worry about” and simply submit it for a quarterly report.
Indeed, even when no American is targeted directly, the NSA still collects massive amounts of information on Americans, something which they describe as “incidental.”
When the NSA is conducting surveillance on a suspected foreign spy or terrorist, they snap up everyone who happens to have crossed paths with the target online.
“Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two ‘hops’ out from their target, which increases ‘incidental collection’ exponentially,” the Post notes.
This means that the number of Americans caught in this sweeping surveillance method is likely much larger than one would initially suspect.
Perhaps even more troubling is that PRISM is growing rapidly and is hailed by the NSA as “one of the most valuable, unique and productive accesses for NSA.”
The document reveals that in 2012 the number of communications obtained under PRISM increased by 248% along with a 131% increase in requests for Facebook data and 63% for Google.
The presentation claims that the NSA has overcome what they claim are shortcomings in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant system.
Since FISA requires individual warrants and supposedly requires confirmations that the parties targeted are outside of the U.S., the NSA claims the constraints “restricted our ‘home-field advantage.’”
“FISA was broken because it provided privacy protections to people who were not entitled to them,” the presentation states. “It took a FISA court order to collect on foreigners overseas who were communicating with other foreigners overseas simply because the government was collecting off a wire in the United States. There were too many email accounts to be practical to seek FISAs for all.”
Now the NSA “only reasonable suspicion that one of the parties was outside the country at the time of the records were collected by the NSA,” according to the Guardian.
Yet the secrecy surrounding the government’s surveillance programs is so pervasive that we don’t really know if the privacy safeguards are actually working.
“The problem is we here in the United States Senate and so the citizens we represent don’t know how well any of these safeguards actually work,” Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) warned in the past.
“The law doesn’t forbid purely domestic information from being collected. We know that at least one FISA court has ruled that the surveillance program violated the law. Why? Those who know can’t say and average Americans can’t know,” Coons added.
“It’s shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy said to the Guardian. “The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications”
“This is unprecedented militarization of domestic communications infrastructure,” Jaffer said. “That’s profoundly troubling to anyone who is concerned about that separation.”
Yesterday, when I wrote, “One can only imagine what remains to be uncovered,” I really didn’t suspect we’d see something of this magnitude so soon.
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