from washingtonpost.com: The National
Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central
servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio,
video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable
analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
The highly classified program, code-named PRISM, has not been
disclosed publicly before.
Its establishment in 2007 and six years of
exponential growth took place beneath the surface of a roiling debate
over the boundaries of surveillance and privacy. Even late last year,
when critics of the foreign intelligence statute argued for changes, the
only members of Congress who know about PRISM were bound by oaths of
office to hold their tongues.
An internal presentation on the Silicon Valley operation,
intended for senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence
Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to
the President’s Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles
last year. According to the briefing slides, obtained by The Washington
Post, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source
of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the
trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the
NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep
inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of
millions of American-held accounts on American soil.
The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM
operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon
Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of
entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk,
AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted
significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian
Roots in the ’70s
PRISM is an heir, in one sense, to a history of intelligence
alliances with as many as 100 trusted U.S. companies since the 1970s.
The NSA calls these Special Source Operations, and PRISM falls under
The Silicon Valley operation works alongside a
parallel program, code-named BLARNEY, that gathers up “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
But the PRISM program appears more nearly to resemble
the most controversial of the warrantless surveillance orders issued by
President George W. Bush after the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Its history, in which President Obama presided over “exponential growth”
in a program that candidate Obama criticized, shows how fundamentally
surveillance law and practice have shifted away from individual
suspicion in favor of systematic, mass collection techniques.
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 same
math explains the aphorism, from the John Guare play, that no one is
more than “six degrees of separation” from Kevin Bacon.
Formally, in exchange for immunity from lawsuits, companies like
Yahoo and AOL are obliged accept a “directive” from the attorney general
and the director of national intelligence to open their servers to the
FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit, which handles liaison to U.S.
companies from the NSA. In 2008, Congress gave the Justice Department
authority to for a secret order from the Foreign Surveillance
Intelligence Court to compel a reluctant company “to comply.”
practice, there is room for a company to maneuver, delay or resist. When
a clandestine intelligence program meets a highly regulated industry,
said a lawyer with experience in bridging the gaps, neither side wants
to risk a public fight. The engineering problems so immense, in systems
of such complexity and frequent change, that the FBI and NSA would be
hard pressed to build in back doors without active help from each
Apple demonstrated that resistance is possible, for
reasons unknown, when it held out for more than five years after
Microsoft became PRISM’s first corporate partner in May 2007. Twitter,
which has cultivated a reputation for aggressive defense of its users’
privacy, is still conspicuous by its absence from the list of “private
“Google cares deeply about the security of our
users’ data,” a company spokesman said. “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.”
market researchers, but with far more privileged access, collection
managers in the NSA’s Special Source Operations group, which oversees
the PRISM program, are drawn to the wealth of information about their
subjects in online accounts. For much the same reason, civil
libertarians and some ordinary users may be troubled by the menu
available to analysts who hold the required clearances to “task” the
There has been “continued exponential growth in
tasking to Facebook and Skype,” according to the 41 PRISM slides. With a
few clicks and an affirmation that the subject is believed to be
engaged in terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, an analyst
obtains full access to Facebook’s “extensive search and surveillance
capabilities against the variety of online social networking services.”
to a separate “User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,” that service
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. Google’s
offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo
libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.
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.
Julie Tate and Robert O’Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.