A report by the Washington Post Thursday night revealed that the government's data-mining operation expands far beyond tracking some phone metadata.
A whistle blower provided the Washington Post with information about PRISM, a top secret $20 million-a-year program that began in 2007 that gives the FBI and NSA access to 9 major internet portals including Google, YouTube, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype and Apple.
Data collected can range from anything from photos and videos to email or instant messages. Even social networking information and video files can be swept up in the searches. According to slides on the Post's website, Microsoft was the first organization to comply with Apple agreeing to sign on in October of last year.
A host of high-tech giants came out in droves Thursday to deny that they ever participated in the program.
An Apple spokesman released a statement reading "We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers."
The Guardian Newspaper, which broke the first intelligence scoop up of phone records, wrote that Facebook's security officer told them "We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers."
While the program is intended to collect data on foreigners, the Washington Post explained that spying agencies only need to be about 50 percent sure that someone is foreign before keeping tabs on them.
The Post report revealed that President Obama's administration has been using PRISM with increased frequency. According to the slides, it is used "most" to gather and compile information for intelligence briefings.
The existence of the PRISM Program proved what many suspected and feared to be true; Americans are increasingly being caught up in the government's efforts to thwart foreign terror plots.
A new National Journal poll specially released Thursday shows that 85 percent of Americans thought that their emails and calls were already being monitored.
"I think that NSA since 2001 and within weeks of 9/11 began hoarding as much digital data as they can get on anyone," says Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project.
Radack is familiar with what she says is a long history of the federal government collecting as much personal data as they can get its hands on. Radack has defended a series of high-profile whistle blowers including Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who revealed the scope of NSA's spying during the Bush Administration.
The Post's disclosure came at the end of a day in which The Guardian revealed a judge had signed a secret order directing Verizon to turn over phone records on tens of millions of its customers to the NSA. While calls were not specifically recorded, numbers were scanned to detect patterns of conversations.
On Capitol Hill Thursday, lawmakers on the Senate and House Intelligence committees defended secret programs like the Verizon and said they were legal under the Patriot Act.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., went as far as to say that the controversial phone program actually stopped a terrorist plot from unfolding on U.S. soil "in recent years." Rogers did not provide any more details about the plot, but did say he is working behind the scenes to get it declassified so that more American can understand the importance of national security programs.
"We know that it is important. It fills in a little seam that we have, and it's used to make sure that there's not an international nexus to any terrorism event that we may believe is ongoing in the United States."