Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

NSA, FBI mine Internet firms' data, documents show

Among the PowerPoint slides provided to the Washington Post was this one that shows the Internet companies and the wide range of data the Prism program collects, although the details vary by provider.

Washington Post

Among the PowerPoint slides provided to the Washington Post was this one that shows the Internet companies and the wide range of data the Prism program collects, although the details vary by provider.

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates, according to a top-secret document obtained by the Washington Post.

The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.

Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: "Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."

PRISM was launched after Congress passed the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection.

The court-approved program is focused on foreign communications traffic, which often flows through U.S. servers even when sent from one overseas location to another. Between 2004 and 2007, Bush administration lawyers persuaded federal FISA judges to issue surveillance orders in a fundamentally new form. Until then the government had to show probable cause that a particular "target" and "facility" were both connected to terrorism or espionage.

In four new orders, which remain classified, the court defined massive data sets as "facilities" and agreed to occasionally certify that the government had reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of "U.S. persons" data without a warrant.

Several companies contacted by the Post said they had no knowledge of the program and responded only to individual requests for information.

"We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers," said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook. "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."

An Apple spokesman said the company had never heard of PRISM and requires court orders before providing customer data. A Google spokesman also said the company only discloses user data to government in accordance with the law, and it does not have a "back door'' for the government to access private user data.

Government officials and the document itself made clear that the NSA regarded the identities of its partners as PRISM's most sensitive secret, fearing they would withdraw from the program if exposed. "98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don't harm these sources," the briefing's author wrote in his speaker's notes.

An internal presentation of 41 briefing slides on PRISM, dated April 2013 and 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 slides and other supporting materials obtained by the 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.

The technology companies that participate in PRISM operations are listed on a roster in the document that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: "Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple." PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the Syrian civil war.

Government officials declined to comment for this article.

The PRISM program is not a dragnet. From inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all. Analysts who use the system from a web portal in Fort Meade, Md., key in "selectors," or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target's "foreignness." That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by the Post instruct new analysts to submit accidentally collected U.S. content for a quarterly report but add that "it's nothing to worry about."

Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as "incidental," and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect's inbox or outbox is swept in.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., who had classified knowledge of the program as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were unable to speak of it when they warned in a Dec. 27, 2012, floor debate that the FISA Amendments Act had what both of them called a "back-door search loophole" for the content of innocent Americans who were swept up in a search for someone else. "As it is written, there is nothing to prohibit the intelligence community from searching through a pile of communications, which may have been incidentally or accidentally been collected without a warrant, to deliberately search for the phone calls or emails of specific Americans," they said.

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to the Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy.

NSA, FBI mine Internet firms' data, documents show 06/06/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 6, 2013 11:48pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Who is in charge during a hurricane? Hillsborough County and Tampa still can't agree

    Hurricanes

    TAMPA — Who has the authority to order an evacuation during a hurricane?

    Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he has evacuation authority.
  2. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31

    Blogs

    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  3. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win

    Blogs

    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  4. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.
  5. Trump fallout: Bucs' DeSean Jackson to make 'statement' Sunday

    Bucs

    Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson said Saturday that he will make a "statement" before today's game against the Vikings in response to President Donald Trump's comment that owners should "fire" players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) makes a catch during the first half of an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.