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US also collects Internet data; does NSA directly tap servers of Google and other top companies?

Posted Jun 7, 2013 7:03 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The Obama administration has acknowledged a classified program to tap Internet data after the Washington Post and then the Guardian published a secret Power Point presentation about the effort that was apparently created for training purposes.

The program, known as PRISM, targets overseas communications and is permitted by U.S. intelligence law, officials told the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) and Washington Post. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement that the program involves "extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, 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."

According to the document published by the Post and the Guardian, the program directly taps the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, report the Washington Post and the Guardian. That assertion was soon disputed.

“Many of the companies quickly denied they were involved,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “adding a note of confusion as to how the program might operate.” An Apple spokesperson, for example, said the company has “never heard of” the program.

According to the Post, PRISM “is not a dragnet, exactly.” Analysts use search terms designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence that a target is foreign. Even when Americans aren’t singled out, a great deal of incidental content on U.S. citizens is swept in under guidelines that allow collection of information two “hops” from the target. That guideline “increases ‘incidental collection’ exponentially,” the Post says. “The same math explains the aphorism, from the John Guare play, that no one is more than ‘six degrees of separation’ from any other person."

The Washington Post explains the legal justification for the program this way. “Between 2004 and 2007, Bush administration lawyers persuaded federal FISA judges to issue surveillance orders in a fundamentally new form. Until then the government had to show probable cause that a particular ‘target’ and ‘facility’ were both connected to terrorism or espionage. In four new orders, which remain classified, the court defined massive data sets as 'facilities’ and agreed to certify periodically that the government had reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of ‘U.S. persons’ data without a warrant.”

The disclosure comes after federal lawmakers said the National Security Agency has been collecting cell phone information for seven years, thwarting at least one terrorist attack.

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