The Washington Post Thursday published a story detailing a widespread government program that monitors online activities of users of nine major U.S. internet companies. The PRISM surveillance program began in 2007 and has been mining e-mails, documents, photographs and both audio and video chats.
A career intelligence officer provided documents about the program to the Post because of what the paper called the officer's "horror at their capabilities." He said the fact that the government "quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type" is a "gross intrusion of privacy."
The servers of Apple, AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube and PalTalk are subject to examination by the court-approved program. Several of these companies denied knowledge of the program, and said they did not knowingly create a "back door" that allowed the government access to their user data.
"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," said a company spokesman. "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."
The Post published a 43-slide briefing presentation dated April 2013 that was made for senior analysts at the National Security Agency's Signals Intelligence Directorate, and cited the information collected through the program as an abundant source for the President's Daily Brief. PRISM grew out of President George W. Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, but has not been disclosed publicly before now.
The administration defended the program as a vital tool in the fight against terror, and said the court order includes "extensive procedures … 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."
"Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," said National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper.
The administration, however, was unable to estimate how many Americans' data may have been collected incidentally through the program. The Post report said the information collected is accessed by analysts in Fort Meade, Md. who use search terms intended to produce at least a 51 percent confidence rate in a target's "foreignness," and said analysts were supposed to report any U.S. data collected. It added that training materials said such accidental collection, though, was "nothing to worry about."
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, disagrees. "The secrecy surrounding the government's extraordinary surveillance powers has stymied our system of checks and balances," said the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office Director Laura Murphy in a statement. "Congress must initiate an investigation to fully uncover the scope of these powers and their constraints, and it must enact reforms that protect Americans' right to privacy and that enable effective public oversight of our government. There is a time and a place for government secrecy, but true democracy demands that the governed be informed of the rules of play so as to hold elected officials to account."
The Post report Thursday follows a revelation Wednesday by the Guardian that the NSA has also been collecting the data of millions of Verizon customers.
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