For seven years, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been using a congressionally approved warrantless Web surveillance system with a near-limitless ability to spy on Americans’ phone calls, emails, video chats, search history and more.
The existence of the classified ‘PRISM’ surveillance program was
revealed in simultaneous reports by the Washington Post and the
Guardian. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the NSA is
monitoring Web searches, credit card transactions and customer
records from companies such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.
A leaked 41-page PowerPoint presentation, verified by both papers and published almost concurrently Thursday evening, outlines details of the previously undisclosed PRISM program.The slides were slated for declassification in 2036.
According to the documents, the program currently boasts access to some of the largest Internet companies in the world, with Microsoft thought to be the first corporation to sign onto the scheme in 2007. Microsoft was followed by Yahoo in 2008, Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, Skype and AOL in 2011, and Apple in 2012. Cloud storage company Dropbox is listed as “coming soon.”
With the participation of those companies, PRISM – and therefore
Washington intelligence workers – have access to the bulk of
Americans’ email, video and voice chat, videos, photos,
voice-over-IP (Skype) chats, file transfers and social networking
Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook all made public statements on Thursday that they had either never heard of or had not complied with PRISM by giving the program access to their servers.
“From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'backdoor' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'backdoor,'” a Google spokesperson told CNBC.
"We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers," Apple said.
"We do not provide any
government organization with direct access to Facebook
servers," Facebook chief security officer Joe Sullivan
said in a statement.
In the leaked documents, the NSA lauds PRISM as "one of the most valuable, unique and productive accesses for NSA."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Obama administration
official told Reuters on Thursday that the surveillance program
only targeted non-citizens outside US territory.
"This program was recently reauthorized by Congress after
extensive hearings and debate," the official said. “It
involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the
court, to ensure that only non-US persons outside the US are
targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and
dissemination of incidentally acquired information about US
"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," he maintained.
In a late-night statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the disclosure of the PRISM program "reprehensible," and said that its disclosure poses a risk to national security.
"The unauthorized disclosure of a top secret US court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation," Clapper said. He also claimed that reports on PRISM contained numerous unspecified inaccuracies.
White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said on Thursday that the spy program is a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.”
The House of Representatives reacted to the news by fervently
defending the program. Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair
of the House Intelligence Committee, said the surveillance effort
had prevented a "significant" attack within the United
States, without going into specifics.
"It's called protecting America," Senate Intelligence Committee head Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said.
“This is a program that's been in effect for seven years, as I
recall,'' Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)
said. “It's a program that has worked to prevent not all
terrorism but certainly the vast, vast majority. Now is the
program perfect? Of course not.”
While politicians are indeed often subjected to criticism for not
having “anticipated the anticipatable,” Washington
frequently uses national security as a pretext for similar moves,
insisting “that it is critical and the world can’t continue on
unless it does it,” Reason 24/7 managing editor JD Tuccille
“Even if you are not doing anything illegal, you may be doing
something that can arouse government officials’ interest and can
be misused by them against you,” Tuccille said. “We all
have something to hide. Our friends, our political associations,
Claims that the NSA is not spying on Americans are “absurd
because anybody could potentially commit a terrorist act,”
journalist Russ Baker told RT. “The reality is they’re looking
at all of us. They’re trying to establish networks of
communication but it’s kind of ridiculous because you’re looking
for a needle in a haystack. You’re looking at virtually the
entire world trying to find just a handful of plots and, as we
know, many of these plots turn out to be more complicated, with
FBI informants involved right from the beginning.”
While the Obama administration is known for responding to some
scandals by dismissing them, this time the White House is using a
different tactic, Joshua Holland of AlterNet said: “They’re
basically saying ‘we are protecting you.' I think they are
counting on the fact that for many many Americans these things
are not outrageous. They tend to accept less personal privacy in
the name of the War on Terror.”
America has conducted aggressive surveillance operations within
the country ever since the PATRIOT Act was passed in 2001, Dia
Chakravarty of the Freedom Association told RT.
“There seems to be a huge gap between what we, the American
citizens, think that the government is allowed to do and the
government agencies' interpretation of what they are allowed to
do,” Chakravarty said. “And that gap is extremely
The PRISM presentation, which is classified as internal and
intended for senior analysts within the NSA’s Signals
Intelligence Directorate, describes the program as the most
prolific contribution to President Obama’s daily briefing, which
cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles in 2012. According to the
Washington Post, PRISM data accounts for nearly 1 in 7
The presentation further boasts of “strong growth” in
PRISM’s reach, noting the number of online communications
obtained increased by 248 percent in 2012 for Skype alone, with
“exponential growth in Skype
reporting... Looks like the word is getting out about our
capability against Skype.”
US intelligence requests made through PRISM in 2012 increased by 131 percent for Facebook, and by 63 percent for Google, according to the presentation.
According to the Guardian, when the NSA reviews a communication
flagged for further investigation, it can then issue what it
calls a "report." The
NSA revealed that "over 2,000
PRISM-based reports" are now issued every month,
representing a 27 percent increase since last year.
Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's Center for Democracy,
told the Guardian it was astonishing the NSA would directly ask
companies to grant access to user data: "It's shocking enough just that the NSA is
asking companies to do this. The NSA is part of the military. The
military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian
"This is unprecedented
militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure. That's
profoundly troubling to anyone who is concerned about that
separation," Jaffer added.