The National Security Agency’s highly classified program, PRISM, has been mining data, including emails, photos, audio, video, documents and connection logs, from the central servers of nine leading internet companies for the past six years.
News that the NSA was mining metadata was reported by Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras of the Washington Post the same week The Guardian reported the NSA attained a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over all U.S. call records in April.
The Washington Post published a series of briefing slides they obtained from a "career intelligence officer" who claimed "firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities" were the reason for the disclosure. The slides provided senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate with a break down of the program and called the data mined a "leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly one in seve intelligence reports."
Approved by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), PRISM has a huge collection of data going back to 2007. Microsoft was the first to participate in the program, followed by Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and finally Apple in 2012.
Tech giants claim they had no idea the NSA had direct access to their servers.
“We have never heard of PRISM,” said Steve Dowling, spokesperson for Apple. “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.”
“We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers,” said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook. “When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws and provide information only to the extent required by law.”
"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," Google told The Guardian and The Washington Post. "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."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., told the Denver Post he “did everything short of leaking classified information” to let Americans know the NSA was spying on phone records.
During a December debate on the floor of the Senate, Udall said the FISA Amendment Act had a “back-door search loophole” that meant any American could be targeted — a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.
“As it is written, there is nothing to prohibit the intelligence community from searching through a pile of communications, which may have been incidentally or accidentally been collected without a warrant, to deliberately search for the phone calls or emails of specific Americans,” Udall said.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., both believe the NSA’s collection of U.S. phone records from Verizon is vital to counter-terrorism efforts.
“It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein said during a Thursday press conference.
Chambliss also made headlines this week when he suggested that the high rate of sexual assault in the military could be explained by “hormone levels created by nature.”