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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43 Responses to “US government is tapping 9 major Internet companies”

  1. Nigel says:

    It cannot be forgotten that so did Hitler have a law that made his actions legal “The Enabling Act” and Germany was indeed “Totalitarian”

  2. Whoru says:

    Millions of people do not live in the US and don’t care your constitute right or whatever right. But why are they surveillance by another government? Who give u the RIGHT?

  3. karmanot says:


  4. karmanot says:

    We have know about this to some degree for years. Didn’t Frontlne do a documentary on it. Yet, there was a collective yawn and the years go by as Obama strengthens the American police state and violates the Constitution with as much vigor as gee Dubya.

  5. ComradeRutherford says:

    No one is surprised by this, right?

    Back in 1996, the FBI ordered Congress to pass a law to force all the phone companies in America to buy new switches in order for any agent at any computer to listen in on any phone call at any time for any reason. And that was 1996!!! It was championed by the Gingrich Republicans and signed into law by Moderate Republican Clinton.

    This was the same year that the GOP passed the Omnibus Crime Act, and voted down Rep Conyer’s hippie-dippy far-left, radical amendment to the bill, the text of the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution. The Republicans all said that if they accepted Conyer’s crazy, anti-American, radical-Liberal amendment that almost all of their precious Tough On Crime law would be overturned.

    The Republicans have been attacking the Constitution and it’s amendments for generations, that Obama is continuing that attack is more proof that Obama is a Republican.

  6. Sweetie says:

    The corporate TV media, from the coverage I’ve seen, loves to use the “I have nothing to hide” straw man.

    It’s a straw man because, in reality, the government cannot be trusted.

  7. mirth says:

    Truth, Justice, or The American Way.

  8. Snaggletooth says:

    3 words, Open Source Software.

    Yes, it’s a lot to learn. No, it’s not easy. No, it’s not foolproof. It is however the only way to use modern technology and opt out of these nightmares. Can you afford to remain ignorant?

  9. JPlattim1933 says:

    Yeah, and I’m not the only one who was a little um, surprised, that the whole thing came together in six weeks.­ ­http://mybestfriendmakes65dollarsper&#46qr&#46net/kkEj

  10. citizen_spot says:

    Sadly, the govt. is probably using a private contractor to do the gathering and analysis, so there is no way to hold the government accountable. The internet companies all deny allowing the “government” access to their servers. They don’t say anything about 3rd party contractors accessing the data. Someone over at TPM suggest that the company Palantir is that contractor, but they deny their Prism system is the same one as the PRISM system in the leaked power point document. Yeah, ok, sure.

  11. HolyMoly says:

    I think now we can see why officials who testified in front of Congress or who were answering journalists’ questions refused ever to answer the question of how many phone calls they’ve intercepted in the past year, week, month, day, whatever, citing “national security” as the reason for refusing to answer.

    And I have always wondered what it is about a number that might affect security concerns. Here are two contrasting examples:

    (1) If a journalist asked Eisenhower about the number of troops situated in this or that town, near this or that bridge just days prior to the Battle of the Bulge, I’d fully understand his refusal to answer. Those numbers really ARE a security concern. The Germans knew where we were, but if they knew that we had 100,000 troops at this town, 250,000 near that town, but only 500 holding some bridge between them, then numbers WOULD have a direct effect on German battle plans, and quite possibly the outcome of the battle (and the war).

    (2) If Obama officials revealed the number of calls intercepted daily, weekly, yearly, how would that help The Terrorists? (“Aha! They intercept as many as 1,000 calls per day! We have them now!” exclaims al-Qaeda’s No. 2 operative du jour.) To me, a number in this instance is just a number, and there would be no consequence to revealing it.

    Or would there be? If an official answered truthfully that nearly a billion phone calls, e-mails, etc. were intercepted PER DAY, it would definitely matter who learned this information. However many Terrorists there are out there, they probably don’t number more than a few thousand, if that. I remember reading that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was down to maybe 100 or so (of course with indiscriminate droning, that could change quickly). Whatever the number, The Terrorists aren’t making nearly 1 billion electronic communications per day. There just simply aren’t enough hours in the day for so few people to make so many calls. So someone might begin to wonder where all these calls are coming from. The answer would be that the intercepted calls/e-mails are OURS (which we now know to be true).

    THAT’S why they didn’t want to reveal the numbers.

    So now that we know this, be wary of any official from this point on who refuses to answer certain questions about the many “War on Terror” programs, citing national security concerns, even though an answer to the question cannot conceivably do any harm. A truthful answer could possibly tell us a lot more about what they’re doing to Americans than what they’re doing to the terrorists.

  12. zorbear says:

    My daddy tole me to never let nobody peek inna my drawers — esp if I’m wearin’ ’em at the time!

  13. karmanot says:

    very like+++++++

  14. nicho says:

    What browser are you using?

  15. nicho says:

    Well, then just package up all your info every month and send it to them. Leave my info the fuck alone.

    I’m assuming you’d have no problem with the police letting themselves into your house when you’re not there to peek in your drawers, under your bed, through your private correspondence, in your closets. etc.

  16. nicho says:

    Except that the telecoms and social media companies are part and parcel of the Corporatocracy that runs the country. Anyone in politics, from the president on down, are merely functionaries of the Corporate dictators.

  17. emjayay says:

    But they are our elected representatives and the right wing loves this stuff until they don’t.

  18. HolyMoly says:

    The Bill of Rights isn’t there to protect things which are cozy, acceptable, and mainstream. There really isn’t any need to protect such things. It’s there to protect the objectionable, controversial, or immoral (all of which, of course, are subjective). The Fourth Amendment isn’t there to “protect criminals,” it’s there to protect the innocent from unnecessary intrusions on their privacy (political opponents could find themselves constantly harassed in this way). The First Amendment isn’t there to protect teenagers from praying at the school flagpole. They don’t NEED protection to do that. It’s there to protect people who say and do “objectionable” things, things that “polite society” want to be silenced.

    So, yes, researching how to make a bomb or ricin, while certainly controversial in the eyes of many, IS protected by the Constitution. Publishing such information is free speech. You don’t like that information being out there, use YOUR free speech to denounce it. That’s how it works.

    As far as what Obama is doing, I don’t give a flying rat’s rectum if Congress “authorized” anything, no matter how prolonged or deliberative their debate, no matter how many “civil protections” they constantly fretted over. The fact of the matter is that you CANNOT legislate away ANY portion of the Constitution. They want to gut the Fourth Amendment? Fine! There’s a provision for that: Article V of the Constitution (provision for amendments). But it’s going to be a VERY public undertaking, with virtually no chance of them ever succeeding. In lieu of that, the Bill of Rights are still in place and they need to start obeying them.

    As far as “top secret” information being disseminated, the government has gotten way too fast and loose with confidential classification. Troop movements, major offensives during war? Sure, that SHOULD be classified and anyone divulging that information should be prosecuted. But to do something ILLEGAL and then classify it (in order to cover the crime up)? It’s our DUTY to expose such things if we are privy to that information. Whoever revealed warrantless eavesdropping under Bush, CIA black sites, torture at Abu Ghraib, the Verizon flap, and now internet-snooping, should be hailed as nothing less than genuine heroes!

    Obama says this was classified because he didn’t want the Bad Guys (read: American citizens) to know that they were doing it. Well, guess what? There has been speculation about this sort of thing occurring for years now. Recent revelations have only confirmed what we already knew. Do you think The Terrorists didn’t suspect such things were taking place? Of course they did! And of course they have already been taking that into account when communicating. I seriously doubt any of them would have been stupid enough to sign of for a Verizon account and proceed to contact each other with it. They use the disposable phones. They use “primitive” forms of communication that CAN’T be electronically surveilled. So, that being the case, who is the government REALLY targeting?

  19. emjayay says:

    Pretty much everywhere I use my credit card, which is almost all my purchases, I also use a club card for that store. So the store knows all about my purchases and the credit card company does too. If I look at a product for a second on Google, an ad for it pops up on Yahoo. Information about my activities is obviously all over the place. I know it’s not guvmint, but if they have it too it’s just one more step. I pretty much knew about all this and assumed the rest already.
    The cognitive dissonance for the right wing about this will be interesting.

  20. emjayay says:

    There was an ad covering half the capsule for this article. For some reason this time the ad here is behind this box instead of being over it as usual.

  21. devlzadvocate says:

    I think what is new and most disturbing is that credit card companies are providing data to the NSA. That is information that is unlike phone information and Internet data. It is not in the public domain and is not revealed voluntarily to anyone. In addition, there are certain privacy rules and agreements that have been agreed to between individuals and companies.

    This seems to be a HUGE problem.

  22. Indigo says:

    That’s climate change for you.

  23. bejammin075 says:

    The potential for abuse of the information could be substantial. What if a group of military and/or political people who were in power spied on their political opponents/enemies to unfairly get a devastating advantage?
    A different aspect to comment on: By “targeting” I’m thinking that they will claim they vacuum up the information whole-sale, but then only do “targeted” querries of the information, like a lead comes up to take a closer look at John Smith living at 123 ABC Street.

  24. devlzadvocate says:

    I think the argument goes something like “the information in placed on the Internet by individuals is no longer secure”. I imagine if any of those nine companies is advising customers that email, etc is NOT secure, that kind of seals the deal. BTW, I learned a long time ago, don’t put anything online that you don’t want published on the front page of the newspaper. So, if you want privacy, communicate using KNOWN privacy assured devices.

  25. samizdat says:

    Yeah, and I’m not the only one who was a little um, surprised, that the whole thing came together in six weeks.

  26. samizdat says:


  27. samizdat says:

    Hey, pussy, I’ve got a few countries which would love the likes of you as a resident. Iran, Egypt, China, Syria (bonus: they tortured for us, so that should make that chubby you’ve got for control even more prominent). There are others, so many others.

  28. samizdat says:

    Oh, I don’t know about that ‘privacy’ thing. Seems that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments have that covered: “… right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects…”. That to me is a guarantee of privacy. F*** Antonin Scalia.

  29. samizdat says:

    Really, HuffPo criticizing Drone-bama? Did hell just freeze over?

  30. devlzadvocate says:

    Did anyone really think this WASN’T taking place? Considering the Consitution doesn’t contain any express guarantees of the right to privacy (here we go again), this doesn’t seem to be “unreasonable search and seizure” and it isn’t “personal information” because it is no longer personal because it is in the public domain (Verizon, Apple, etc has it). I’m not condoning it, but the erosion since the Reagan years continues. What president will say, “Oh no. Give me less power.”

  31. Houndentenor says:

    The Patriot Act made this legal but it didn’t require the telecoms and social media companies to cooperate without a warrant. They did that on their own. there’s a lot of blame to go around here starting with the vast majority of members of Congress who voted for the Patriot Act, two administrations that used this new power and finally the companies that so eagerly handed over their customer’s personal information.

  32. jomicur says:

    Yeah, because we’re only capable of being concerned about one issue at a time. Every last one of us is just exactly as limited as you. Sure.

  33. Indigo says:

    It is totalitarian but so is much else in our national life. Some would even say seat belt laws are totalitarian although in my car, the engine doesn’t get started until all seat belts are fastened. That’s how totalitarian I am in real life.

    But! this is totalitarian with a pseudo-scientific base, pretending to apply semiotic principles to the analysis of data, looking for overlapping phrases and recurring phone numbers in order to establish a pattern recognition system. Oh, my! Yes, semiotics can do that.

    Let’s turn it over to our leading semiotician, Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky and think about what he might say. Methinks the industry that’s generating this government-sponsored foray into pseudo-semiotic analysis gets up in the morning and puts the left shoe on the right foot. Their system won’t work because they’re just sifting numbers and inventing a fresh layer of caca del toro. Olé!

  34. Indigo says:

    Except for the part where debate was stifled in the Name of National Security.

  35. nicho says:

    Ramming a law through Congress without letting members of Congress read it is in itself totalitarianism. The press, in fact, only reported on it because on whistleblower — outside of the country — blew the story open.

  36. nicho says:

    Anyone who tries to justify this in any way, shape, or form is an idiot and has been dumbed down by propaganda until they have the intellectual ability of a toadstool. This is totalitariansim pure and simple. Stalin would have wet his pants if he had the ability that Obama has to spy on his own people.

  37. nicho says:

    Actually, it does. Try reading it sometime — unless you’re a conservative. In that case, just continue to wipe your ass with it.

  38. MyrddinWilt says:

    Yeah and just watch all the Republicans who voted for the Patriot act bloviating over these disclosures.

  39. Drew2u says:

    Remember when the Patriot Act was needed to gather the information required to stop 9/11?

  40. CPT_Doom says:

    Sure, every american should have the right to research the internet to make a bomb or how to make ricin, I’m sure the constitution says so!

  41. MyrddinWilt says:

    Lets turn that around. The most effective step that the US government could take to reduce terrorism is gun control. They won’t do that because the gun manufacturers are a $10 billion industry.

    The last time the NSA had the ability to intercept on this scale they used that capability to support the CIA coups from Iran through to Chile. Democratic regimes were snuffed out and replaced by convenient dictators. And all in the service of the wealth of a tiny few. And before you say how much things have changed remember that the GOP has enough power to keep the gulag in Guantanamo running and to stop any investigation or prosecution of the people responsible for the torture program at Abu Ghraib (as opposed to the idiots who did the torture for the regime).

    PRISM has put the credibility of Google, Apple and Facebook on the line. Those companies are the heart of the new economy worth over $1 trillion. Microsoft was already pissed because of the Flame attack.

  42. CPT_Doom says:

    I don’t give a darn about who has my telephone info, all the people who are outraged that the NSA might have their phone records should be expressing outrage at the nu7mber of gun deaths since Sandy Hook.
    Anyway I thought we had this debate on phone records when Bush got the Patriot Act.

  43. rerutled says:

    There are two differences between the Federal government’s behavior and that of a totalitarian state (which make some difference, but not much). They are this. First, they passed a law called the PATRIOT act which said all this is totally legal. Second, we have a press which isn’t completely cowed, and so will report this stuff. One wonders, though, if the Post and the Times first asked the White House if it was okay to report it, as they have on so many other issues.

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