US government is tapping 9 major Internet companies

Yesterday we discovered that Verizon was served in April with a court order to deliver all the metadata on its 121 million customers’ phone use – including your phone number, who you’re calling, where you’re located when you call them, and more.  And Verizon has been complying.  And now the Washington Post reveals that nine major Internet companies are also being tapped.

The importance of this second revelation can hardly be overstated. The Verizon court order was not in itself proof of a widespread program. It is possible to construct a plausible alternative explanation for one court order. But the new revelations in the Washington Post are an entirely different league.

The program is named PRISM, and part of what’s creepy about it is that it reportedly taps directly into the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.  And they’ll soon be moving into DropBox too.

The revelation led the Huffington Post to make this their top headline, late last night:

George W. Obama

What kind of things are they looking at, and for?  According to the Post, “audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”


More from the Post:

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.

Computer servers via Shutterstock

Computer servers via Shutterstock

An important note: The administration has told Sam Stein at the Huffington Post that the program only targets non-US persons outside of the United States.

Back to the importance of the program. The Presidential Daily Brief (commonly referred to as the PDB) is a highly-classified document designed to tell the President each morning what is happening in the world, and what people are thinking, with a focus on intelligence and national security. So the ability to scrape Facebook (say) and tell the President that people in Lebanon are really angry about Syria would be useful information. If the data suggested that there were large numbers of people talking about taking up arms and joining one side or the other, that would be really important intelligence.

Keep in mind, that Facebook has 1 billion members. Keeping track of that many people on a minute-by-minute basis would be nearly impossible without tapping directly into Facebook’s servers.  But the intelligence coup of tapping into Facebook’s servers goes well beyond profile posts.  Facebook has email messaging, chat, voice and video calling.  If the government were tapped into that, they could follow anything and anyone they wanted.

And per se, if the information they’re gleaning is making its way into the PDB, clearly they they think they’re finding some good intelligence.  That’s not to say that this is a program the rest of us should welcome.

A new National Journal poll finds that 85% of American adults believe that their “communications history, like phone calls, e-mails, and Internet use [was] available for businesses, government, individuals, and other groups to access without your consent.” When the poll asked what kind of enhanced surveillance people would support, only 10% wanted “expanded government monitoring of cell-phone and e-mail activities,” a plurality (44%) endorsed increased camera surveillance in public places, but 42% opposed all the options presented.

So people seem to know that their privacy is shrinking, and they don’t seem terribly thrilled at the prospect, but the question remains: What are they going to do about it?

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