WASHINGTON: US intelligence agencies are accessing the servers of nine internet giants as part of a secret data mining program likely to fuel fresh debate about government surveillance, it was reported on Thursday.
The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI had direct access to servers which allowed them to track an individual’s web presence via audio, video, photographs, emails and connection logs.
Some of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley were involved in the program, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, PalTalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube, reports said.
The newspaper cited details of a briefing on the top secret program — known as PRISM — intended for analysts at the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate in April.
The program was set up in 2007 and has grown “exponentially” to the point where it is now the most prolific contributor to President Barack Obama’s Daily Brief, the US leader’s top-secret daily intelligence briefing.
The Post revelations, also reported by British newspaper the Guardian, come amid a furor over the government’s monitoring of phone communications, which had reopened debate over surveillance methods first adopted by George W Bush’s administration after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The report came after it emerged that the US intelligence community under Obama is pursuing the wide-scale monitoring of millions of Americans’ cell phone records, a move decried as “Orwellian” by civil liberty groups.
The Guardian said PRISM allowed the intelligence community to collect information such as search history, emails, file transfers and live chats.
Although the leaked document indicated the program had been sanctioned by the companies involved, several denied any knowledge of it. Google dismissed suggestions it had opened a “back door” for intelligence agencies.
“Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully,” the company said in a statement quoted by the Guardian.
“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.”
An unidentified tech firm executive quoted by the Guardian added: “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge.”
The Guardian reported that Microsoft had been part of the program since 2007, with Apple the most recent addition in October 2012. The program allowed the NSA to obtain communications at the source without having to make requests to service providers directly or to obtain individual court orders.
The Guardian reported that PRISM was the source for more than 2,000 intelligence reports each month. More than 24,000 reports were issued in 2012, a 27 percent increase from 2011. A total of 77,000 intelligence reports have cited PRISM since the program began six years ago, the Guardian report said.