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article imageNSA's PRISM program taps into servers of 9 US Internet companies

By JohnThomas Didymus     Jun 7, 2013 in Politics
Washington - The Washington Post is reporting that a top-secret document it obtained reveals that the NSA and FBI have obtained direct access to the central servers of major US Internet companies and are extracting audio/video chats, photos, emails and more.
The Guardian also reports that it has obtained and verified the same top-secret document which shows that the NSA has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other major US Internet service providers. According to The Guardian, the document it obtained includes a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation used to train intelligence operatives.
The Washington Post writes that the joint NSA, FBI program, codenamed PRISM, is being revealed for the first time. The leaked document reveals that the NSA extracts the information it wants by "collection directly from the servers of 9 leading US Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."
The PRISM program allows the NSA to obtain the content of communications between individuals and groups, both domestic and foreign, without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain court orders.
According The Guardian, NSA officials have unfettered access to search histories, contents of emails, file transfers and livechats of private individuals and groups.
PRISM facilitates detailed monitoring of live communications and stored information of customers of participating firms who live outside the US, and Americans whose communications include people living outside the US. It also leaves a convenient loophole that allows communications made entirely within the US to be collected without warrants.
According to The Guardian, a chart within the document reveals that under PRISM, NSA is able to obtain: "email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP (Skype, for example) chats, file transfers, social networking details, and more."
A “User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection," according to The Washington Post, explains that Skype communications "can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of 'audio, video, chat, and file transfers' when Skype users connect by computer alone."
The revelation of the Obama administration's PRISM program follows on the heels of a report by The Guardian that the NSA is secretly collecting the phone records of millions of US Verizon customers. What makes this latest leak even more controversial is that unlike the Verizon leak, it allows NSA to collect the content of commmunications and not just "metadata" as Digital Journal reported. It makes Microsoft's advertising campaign slogan "Your privacy is our priority" sound cynical.
The PRISM program under the Obama administration was launched in place of President George W. Bush's secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance that floundered after media revelation and lawsuits. The Bush administration had obtained surveillance orders from FISA judges without the usual requirement that the government demonstrate evidence that the targets were linked to terrorism and espionage activity.
Congress provided the legal basis for the PRISM program with the Protect America Act of 2007 and the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 which gave legal immunity to private companies that cooperate with the US government's intelligence gathering programs. According to The Guardian, the act gives the director of national intelligence and the attorney general power to order collection of intelligence information, and guarantee legal immunity to companies in connection with their participation in the program.
It makes it unnecessary for NSA to seek individual authorizations or confirm that target parties were outside the US. The NSA only need have "reasonable suspicion" that one of the parties in the targeted communication was outside the US at the time the records were collected.
PRISM officially focuses on foreign communications traffic passing through US servers, including information sent from one foreign location to another.
The leaked document was emphatic about the secrecy of the identities of government private partners in the PRISM project, fearing that exposure could force them to withdraw. The Washington Post reports that the author of the document comments: "98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don’t harm these sources."
All the companies mentioned in the document denied knowledge of PRISM when The Washington Post contacted them. Facebook reportedly told CNBC's Eamon Javers: "We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. 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."
Similarly, an Apple spokesman told Eamon Javers: "We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."
Eamon Javers
Eamon Javers
Eamon Javers
Eamon Javers
A Google company spokesman, said: “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. 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 Huffington Post comments that the Obama administration would likely give the same response as it did to the previous disclosure of its collection of phone records of Verizon customers. According to The Huffington Post, the White House described the Verizon program as "a critical tool for preventing terrorist attacks."
The diagrams below are part of briefing slides on PRISM, dated April 2013, intended for use by senior analysts in the NSA's Signals intelligence Directorate. According to The Washington Post, the document describes PRISM as the most prolific source of intelligence going into the President's Daily Brief. It was emphatic that "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" and that it accounts for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
PRISM slides
PRISM slides
The Guardian writes that PRISM exploits the fact that the US houses much of the internet's architecture which gives it access to foreign communications. According to the document: "FISA was broken because it provided privacy protections to people who were not entitled to them. 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."
The Washington Post alludes to the irony of the situation in which an agency whose primary brief is foreign intelligence finds itself intruding into the systems of American companies.
Analysts comment on how PRISM exemplifies the paradigm shift in information gathering away from targeted requisitions to systematic mass collection. However, NSA is still able to extract any specific information it requires from the participating company's data stream.
PRISM slides
PRISM slides
According to training materials obtained by The Washington Post, NSA analysts use a Web portal in Fort Meade, Md., to key in search terms for information they need to extract from the data streams. The search system is designed to deliver information with at least 51 percent "foreignness" confidence. However, given that this is not a very stringent test, the search sometimes throws up US content which analysts are requested to submit for a quarterly report. Such information is taken as "incidental" although in reality it is substantial.
The situation effectively creates a "back-door loophole" for American content to be included in the NSA's surveillance.
The revelation confirms concerns that were expressed at the time of renewal of Patriot Sunset Extension Act in 2011.
According to The Guardian, Senator Christopher Coons (D-Delaware) had warned that the secrecy surrounding the surveillance programs makes it impossible to know if they were being conducted within the limits of legal safeguards. He said: "The problem is: we here in the Senate and the citizens we represent don't know how well any of these safeguards actually work. 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."
PRISM slides
PRISM slides
Digital Journal reports that Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) had raised concerns about the interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act 50 USC 1861 when it was being renewed in 2011. According to Wyden, who served on the intelligence committee with Udall: "I believe that when more of my colleagues and the American public come to understand how the Patriot Act has actually been interpreted in secret, they will insist on significant reforms too."
The leaked document provides an insight into the scope of NSA's use of the PRISM program. According to The Guardian: "'Over 2,000 PRISM-based reports' are now issued every month. There were 24,005 in 2012, a 27% increase on the previous year. In total, more than 77,000 intelligence reports have cited the PRISM program."
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said: "I would just push back on the idea that the court has signed off on it, so why worry? This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government."
The Washington Post reveals further that PRISM works alongside another program code-named BLARNEY, which collects "'metadata' address packets, device signatures and the like — as it streams past choke points along the backbone of the Internet... BLARNEY’s top-secret program summary, set down alongside a cartoon insignia of a shamrock and a leprechaun hat, describes it as 'an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks."
The Washington Post, commenting on the motivation of the source of the leak, writes : "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. 'They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type' the officer said."
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