Bombshell Report: NSA and FBI 'Tapping Directly' Into Tech Companies' Servers

Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple are all implicated.
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prismoverview.jpg

The first slide of the PowerPoint deck on which the Post's report is based (Washington Post).

Following in the wake of The Guardian's revelation that the National Security Agency had compelled at least one telecom company (Verizon) to hand over its customers' call records, the Washington Post has published a startling report that says nine major Internet companies have been secretly cooperating with the NSA and FBI as well.

The government is "tapping directly" into servers at Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, "extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time."

The program is code-named PRISM. It began in 2007 and has experienced what the Post called "six years of exponential growth." It is now "the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports." Here's how the story's authors, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, describe the operation:

The PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. 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 at Fort Meade 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 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. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two "hops" out from their target, which increases "incidental collection" exponentially.

The Guardian, which ran its own story on PRISM (presumably from the same source), got several tech companies on the record denying "any knowledge of any such program."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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