British government has access to Internet giants' data via US spy agency
The documents show that GCHQ, based in Cheltenham, has had access to the system since at least June 2010, and generated 197 intelligence reports from it last year.
The US-run programme, called Prism, would appear to allow GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside the UK.
The use of Prism raises ethical and legal issues about such direct access to potentially millions of internet users, as well as questions about which British ministers knew of the programme.
In a statement to the Guardian, GCHQ, insisted it "takes its obligations under the law very seriously".
The details of GCHQ's use of Prism are set out in documents prepared for senior analysts working at America's National Security Agency, the biggest eavesdropping organisation in the world.
Dated April this year, the papers describe the remarkable scope of a previously undisclosed "snooping" operation which gave the NSA and the FBI easy access to the systems of nine of the world's biggest internet companies. The group includes Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.
The documents, which appear in the form of a 41-page PowerPoint presentation, suggest the firms voluntarily agreed to co-operate with the Prism programme. Technology companies denied knowledge of Prism, with Google insisting it "does not have a back door for the government to access private user data".
Asked to comment on its use of Prism, GCHQ said it "takes its obligations under the law very seriously. Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the intelligence and security committee".
The agency refused to be drawn on how long it had been using Prism, how many intelligence reports it had gleaned from it, or which ministers knew it was being used.
A GCHQ spokesperson added: "We do not comment on intelligence matters."
A scandal that may have far-reaching political consequences has broken out in the United States. Journalists have found out that the country’s National Security Agency (NSA) obliged the largest telecommunication companies and Internet giants to give information about their subscribers, including on e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and log-ins. The Voice of Russia’s correspondent reports from the United States.
According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, a secret court order had required phone company Verizon to hand over its records to the NSA on an “ongoing daily basis”. In other words, the blanket order was issued to obtain the phone records of a total of 121 Verizon customers. Under the terms of the order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
The NSA confirmed that it had been secretly collecting millions of phone records for years. It stressed that the records were used by special services in order to prevent possible terrorist attacks. This is what Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein said.
She was echoed by White House officials who called the wide-ranging surveillance program a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.” Meanwhile, the authorities have recognized that two other major American wireless providers, AT&T and Sprint, have also been receiving orders to hand over data to the NSA. Additionally, it turned out that the surveillance program has been implemented for seven years now, and that all the Congressmen were in the know but preferred to keep mum on it.
Human rights activists, for their part, say that they want explanations from the authorities and describe as “illegal” special services’ actions as far as the surveillance program is concerned. Shayana Kadidal, of Center For Constitutional Rights, gave his thoughts on the matter.
In the meantime, journalists have found out that US secret services also obtained information related to Americans’ transactions with credit cards. The Washington Times reported in turn that US agencies tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms to track people in a program known as PRISM that was developed in 2007 out of a program of domestic surveillance without warrants that was set up by President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The program was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate.
The National Security Agency has data on as many as 20 trillion phone calls and emails by US citizens, the data on citizens’ habits and preferences thanks to GPS in mobile phones, and the wide network of switching centers across the country since 2003, reports the Washington Times.
William Binney, who worked at NSA for more than 30 years, believes that the user data collection began when the super-secret agency started domestic surveillance after the 9/11 attacks. “I believe they’ve been collecting data about all domestic calls since October 2001,” said Binney, who left the agency in October 2001. “That’s more than a billion calls a day,” he added.
According to Binney, the collection of the data was done under “a highly classified NSA program code-named “Stellar Wind,” which was part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, launched under President George W. Bush”. The existence of such program was reported by the New York Times in 2005, but the government said that they only monitored calls between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad.
Stephen B. Wicker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, said that by using analytical software, the NSA could use mobile phones’ metadata and GPS in mobile phones to collect information on where their users went, who they talked to and what their habits were.
“The metadata available is now so fine-grained that it reveals where we’re going, what we’re doing, what our preferences and beliefs might be and who our friends are,” Wicker said.
In addition, in 2003 the NSA began building switching centers around the country, that allowed to store every byte of data running through AT&T’s fiber-optic cable network, the Washington Times concludes.
It was further revealed that the NSA's monitoring of Americans includes Verizon, AT&T and Sprint Nextel networks, including emails and Web searches, according to the Wall Street Journal. The agency is also alleged with cataloging credit-card transactions, according to sources familiar with the agency's program.
The chairwoman of the US Senate Intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, confirms that the state has been collecting the telephone records of millions of customers since 2006, and that the collection of records was “on an ongoing daily basis” beginning on April 25, 2013 and ending July 19, 2013.
"As far as I know, this is the exact three month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA Court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. That can only be, these records, I’m not talking about content, the records can only be accessed under heightened standards. The information goes into a database, the metadata, but cannot be accessed without what’s called, and I quote, “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity. That terrorists will come after us if they can and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence. To understand that a plot is being hatched and to get there before they get to us," Dianne Feinstein said.
Congress members were fully briefed and aware of the US’s intelligence gathering program, which included the collection of telephone records from Verizon, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed to Reuters on Thursday.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet giants including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
Internet companies however denied opening their doors for US spy agencies."We have never heard of PRISM," said Apple spokesman Steve Dowling.
Google denied any connections with the government’s secret program PRISM, saying that the company disclose “user data to government in accordance with law”, and that the company has never been “a back door for the government’s access to private user data”.
Although some senior tech executives of the companied involved into the scandal said, that if the US government used secret access to the user data via PRISM, then “they [the government] was doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge”.
In response to the reports, also carried by Britain's Guardian newspaper, the White House said Americans were not being spied on, but did not deny the program existed."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 persons," the official added.
Congress recently reauthorized the program under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "after extensive hearings and debate," the official noted.
According to the documents, Microsoft, with the slogan "Your privacy is our priority", was the first corporation to sign onto the surveillance arrangement in 2007.Yahoo joined the program in 2008, Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, Skype and AOL in 2011, and Apple joined in 2012.
The classified information is the 41-page PowerPoint presentation, that was obtained by the Washington Post and The Guardian and published almost concurrently on Thursday evening, outlines details of a previously undisclosed program known as PRISM, which allows the US military intelligence agency to access and gather data on everything from electronic correspondence to file transfers.
The slides were meant to be declassified in 2036.
PRISM was launched as an extension of the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), authorized by then US President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks in 2001 as part of the War on Terrorism. PSP is a collection of secret intelligence activities, which authorized to monitor, without search warrants, the phone calls, Internet activity (Web, e-mail, etc.), text messaging, and other communications, but the government had to show probable cause that a particular “target” and “facility” were both connected to terrorism or espionage.
The Obama Administration has continued the Bush Administration domestic spying program. Verizon Communications, largest US telecommunications company, was ordered to run daily records of all “telephony metadata” between the United States and abroad, including the phone numbers called, the identifying serial numbers for tracking mobile phones, calling card numbers, time and duration of calls.
Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director, believes that the PRISM program is “analogous to the FBI stationing an agent outside every home in the country to track who goes in and who comes out. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”
U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper said on Thursday the law that allows American government agencies to collect communications from internet companies only permits the targeting of "non-U.S. persons" outside the United States.
Responding to articles published by the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper, Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement that the stories contained "numerous inaccuracies," but he did not offer any details.
The Post and Guardian reported that the U.S. government tapped directly into the servers of leading U.S. internet companies, allowing agents to examine emails, photos and other documents.
America's top spy chief warned Thursday that leaks of secret court documents on a scheme to capture millions of phone records risked U.S. national security.
In a statement, Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said "the unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation."
According to the France press agency Apple, Facebook and other Internet giants denied that they had allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to mine data from their servers.
The denials came after The Washington Post reported that a secret spying program named PRISM allowed National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) access to the servers of major Internet companies.
"We have never heard of PRISM," said Apple spokesman Steve Dowling.
"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," he added.
According to media reports on Thursday the U.S. intelligence agencies have access to the servers of nine Internet giants who have been cooperating in a secret data mining program.
The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI have direct access to servers and are able to track anyone’s web presence via audio, video, photographs, emails and connection logs.
Reports say some the biggest internet companies are involved in the program, code-named PRISM and include: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo and YouTube.
The newspaper cited details of a briefing on the top secret program, known as PRISM, used by the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate.
Voice of Russia, Reuters, AFP, DPA, Interfax, The Washington Times, The Guardian