White House admits it has 'access' to Facebook, Google
Obama has 'embraced' surveillance say critics after US confirms secret collection of data from web giants
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this story was published, The Guardian has reported that the UK intelligence gathering organisation GCHQ has had access to the PRISM system since at least June 2010 and has generated 197 intelligence reports.
THE White House has confirmed that US intelligence agencies have been collecting data held by Facebook, Google, Apple and other web giants for nearly six years in a bid to ward off threats to national security.
The confirmation of a “classified program” giving agents access to material stored by some of the biggest internet companies was triggered by a report in The Guardian claiming that the National Security Agency (NSA) has had direct access to the servers used by web giants like Facebook and Google since 2007.
The paper said a secret NSA operation called PRISM gave it free access to emails, file transfers, search histories, live chats and other material. Details of PRISM are contained in a highly classified 41-slide Powerpoint presentation which is believed to have been used to explain its capabilities to US intelligence officers.
Some of the slides, which were published by The Guardian, show the names of the companies involved. As well as Facebook, Google and Apple, they include Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube. The dates the companies joined the program are noted as well as the types of information collected under the program.
The Washington Post, which also obtained and published some of the PRISM slides, says they came from a “disenchanted” intelligence official who wanted to expose “government overreach”.
Several Internet companies insisted they “did not allow the government open-ended access to their servers” but complied with “specific lawful requests for information”, the New York Times reports.
The exposure of PRISM comes just a day after it was revealed that the NSA has been recording metadata from millions of phone calls made by users of the Verizon network.
Taken together, the two unfolding revelations, “open a window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” says the New York Times. Covert digital surveillance has “clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration,” it says.
Although US authorities have confirmed the existence of PRISM, they insist agents only have the right to access material posted by foreigners.
“It [PRISM] cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States,” said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”