Story Summary

NSA surveillance of phones, Internet communications

On December 16, 2005, the New York Times reported that, under White House pressure and with an executive order from President George W. Bush, the National Security Agency, in an attempt to thwart terrorism, had been tapping phone calls made to persons outside the country, without obtaining warrants from the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court created for that purpose under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

In May 2006, Mark Klein, a former AT&T employee, alleged that his company had cooperated with NSA in installing Narus (company) hardware to replace the FBI Carnivore program, to monitor network communications including traffic between American citizens.

In 2009 the NSA intercepted the communications of American citizens, including a congressman, although the Justice Department believed that the NSA had corrected its errors. Attorney General Eric Holder resumed the wiretapping according to his understanding of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendment of 2008, without explaining what had occurred.

On April 25, 2013, the NSA obtained a court order requiring Verizon’s Business Network Services to provide information on all calls in its system to the NSA “on an ongoing daily basis”, as reported by  Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

Data mining

NSA is reported to use its computing capability to analyze “transactional” data that it regularly acquires from other government agencies, which gather it under their own jurisdictional authorities. As part of this effort, NSA now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic e-mails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions and travel and telephone records, according to current and former intelligence officials interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

The NSA began the PRISM electronic surveillance and data mining program in 2007. PRISM gathers communications data on foreign targets from nine major U.S. internet based communication service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Data gathered include email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats such as Skype, and file transfers.

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typingFollowing Google’s lead, Microsoft and Facebook on Tuesday said they also have asked the U.S. government to allow them to disclose the security requests they receive for handing over user data, the BBC reported.

The move comes after reports in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper said that the National Security Agency had direct access to the servers of nine major  tech firms, including Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Google said the claims were “untrue,” but added that nondisclosure rules of such requests “fuel that speculation.”

Google said its chief legal officer, David Drummond, has written to the U.S. attorney general seeking permission to publish “aggregate numbers of national security requests, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) disclosures — in terms of both the number we receive and their scope.”

“Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide,” he said in the letter.

Microsoft told the Reuters news agency that it also had wanted permission to release the requests because “permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues.”

Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said the social networking leader wants to provide “a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond.”


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SEATTLE — The New York Times reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its “dragnet” collection of logs of domestic calls.

The Times said the ACLU contends that the “once-secret program — whose existence was exposed by a former National Security Agency contractor last week — is illegal” and is requesting a judicial order to stop the practice and have the records “purged.”

Edward Snowden’s — the former NSA contractor who leaked the records — and his actions will be in the spotlight throughout the case as his disclosure of not only phone logs that the government was collecting, but also the disclosure of other top secret surveillance information, the paper reported.

The Times said the lawsuit was filed in New York, but it could end up being heard by the Supreme Court.

The ACLU said the program “gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations,” the complaint says, adding that it “is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who would otherwise contact” the ACLU for legal assistance, the Times reported.

The Justice Department has not responded at this time.

While the ACLU has worked with other plantiffs in challenging national security, those cases have generally been dismissed by the courts at the government’s behest, citing the threat of exposing national secrets or that plantiffs could not prove such actions personally affected them, the paper said.

However, this case could be different than previous cases since the government has “declassified the existence of the program on domestic call record ‘metadata’.”

The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services — the subsidiary of Verizon Communications that was the recipient of a secret court order for all its domestic calling records — which it says gives it direct standing to bring the lawsuit, the Times reported.

For the complete New York Times story, go here.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — A 29-year-old computer technician for a U.S. defense contractor leaked details of a top-secret American program that sifts through reams of data from telecommunications companies, American and British newspapers revealed Sunday.


NSA leaker Edward Snowden says, “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” the source, Edward Snowden, told Britain’s the Guardian, one of the papers that broke stories on the program last week.

The Washington Post also disclosed Sunday that Snowden was the source on its stories.

Snowden is a former technical assistant for the CIA and has been working at the National Security Agency, the U.S. electronic intelligence service, for the past four years, the newspaper reported. He said he walked away from a six-figure job in Hawaii for the computer consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and has holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong in preparation for the expected fallout from his disclosures.

“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” he said.

The Guardian reported Wednesday that Verizon Business Network Services had been ordered to hand over telephone records detailing the time, location and telephone numbers involved in domestic calls from April 25 to July 19. An order from a U.S. court that oversees U.S. surveillance efforts backed up the demand, the newspaper reported.

Thursday, the Guardian and The Washington Post disclosed the existence of PRISM, a program they said allows NSA analysts to extract details of customer activities — including “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents” and other materials — from computers at Microsoft, Google, Apple and other Internet firms.

Snowden said the NSA’s reach poses “an existential threat to democracy.” He said he had hoped the Obama administration would end the programs once it took office in 2009, but instead, he said, President Barack Obama “advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”

“I don’t see myself as a hero, because what I’m doing is self-interested,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, Booz Allen said Snowden had worked for the company for less than three months. Reports that he had leaked American secrets were “shocking” and if true, “represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” the company said.

U.S. officials said the program has been distorted in the reports and is a valuable tool in fighting terrorism.

“In a rush to publish, media outlets have not given the full context — including the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement issued Saturday.

Clapper’s office declassified some details of the programs, which it said were “conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress.”

U.S. officials said earlier that phone-call data isn’t looked at unless investigators sense a tie to terrorism, and only then on the authority of a judge. Officials say analysts are forbidden from collecting the Internet activity of American citizens or residents, even when they travel overseas. And Obama tried to reassure Americans about the programs Friday, saying, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”

Clapper’s office said PRISM was created in 2008, targets “foreign targets located outside the United States” and gets reviewed by the administration, Congress and judges. And Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Sunday that “there is not a target on Americans.”

But Glenn Greenwald, the lead author of the Guardian pieces, told ABC’s “This Week” that the articles show the NSA hasn’t leveled with members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the scope of electronic surveillance. He said Americans need an “open, honest debate about whether that’s the kind of country that we want to live in.”

“These are things that the American people have a right to know,” said Greenwald, a lawyer and civil-liberties advocate. “The only thing being damaged is the credibility of political officials and the way they exercise power in the dark.”

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who has long called for greater transparency in how the government collects data on Americans, said the legal authority should be reopened for debate after last week’s disclosures.

“Maybe Americans think this is OK, but I think the line has been drawn too far towards ‘we’re going to invade your privacy,’ versus ‘we’re going to respect your privacy,’ ” Udall told CNN’s State of the Union.

Udall is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, have criticized the scope of the classified programs that allow the collection of Americans’ phone records but have been limited in what they could say publicly.

Udall told CNN that claims that the monitoring has thwarted terrorist attacks are overblown.

“It’s unclear to me we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that’s led to the disruption of plots that could have been attained through other means,” Udall said, pushing back on assertions by both administration officials and Rogers that a specific plot was stopped using the massive collection of phone records.

The Guardian reported that Snowden grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. He joined the Army in 2003 but was discharged after breaking both his legs in a training accident. He never completed a high-school diploma but learned computer skills at a community college in Maryland.

He started his career as a security guard for an NSA facility at the University of Maryland, then went to work for the CIA in Internet security. In 2009, he got the first of several jobs with private contractors that worked with the NSA.

Snowden told the Guardian that he left for Hong Kong on May 20 without telling his family or his girlfriend what he planned. Though it is part of communist-ruled China, the former British colony has a free press and tolerates political dissent under a semi-autonomous government.

Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the United States has exceptions for “political” crimes and cases when handing over a criminal suspect would harm the “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of either party. But Snowden told the Guardian, “I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison.”

“You can’t come up against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk,” he said. “If they want to get you, over time they will.”

 (CNN) — Sweeping up Americans’ telephone records and monitoring Internet activity from overseas are “modest encroachments on privacy” that can help U.S. intelligence analysts disrupt terror activity, President Barack Obama said Friday.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he reassured Americans worried about the prospect of government agents listening in on private conversations.

The public commentary on what, until Wednesday, had been top secret programs followed the first public confirmations of the program Thursday by Director of National Security James Clapper, who described the programs as limited, legal and crucial to national security.

Just three months ago, Clapper denied in a congressional hearing that the government was engaged in the mass collection of data on millions of Americans.

In statements issued Thursday, Clapper acknowledged that the United States is collecting domestic telephone records to ferret out terrorist plots.

He also indirectly confirmed the existence of a program using data from some of the world’s biggest online services companies — including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook — to monitor the online activities of non-U.S. residents overseas.

But he said media reports suggesting widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens and their telephone and online habits have it all wrong, and such reports seriously endanger critical programs to protect Americans from terrorists.

For the complete CNN story, go here.


By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Over the past six years, the FBI and National Security Agency have tapped directly into the central servers of nine leading Internet companies to search for emails, videos, photographs, audio files and other documents potentially linked to investigations into terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, the Washington Post and the (London) Guardian reported Thursday.

typingThe program, code-named PRISM, involves nearly all the major Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, the Post reported, quoting from classified documents.

Among major companies, only Twitter has so far been a holdout, the Post said.

Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo denied participating in the program. The others did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday night.

A senior administration official said the program was governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which “does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located within the United States.”

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the executive branch, and Congress oversee the program, which “was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate.”

The official, who requested anonymity to comment on a classified program, stressed its importance: “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.”

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the Post and Guardian articles “contain numerous inaccuracies.” He called disclosure of the program “reprehensible.”

In a statement, he said the program, based on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.”

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the executive branch, and Congress oversee the program, which “was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate,” he said.

“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats,” Clapper said.

The latest disclosure, coming as officials separately confirmed a long-running NSA program to secretly collect toll records on nearly all domestic and international telephone calls made by Americans, underscores how U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies secretly glean vast amounts of information from communications technology.

Legally, much of the data is considered property of the companies, not of individual users. That limits users’ ability to challenge the government’s data mining operations in court.

The Post said it had obtained information about PRISM from a career intelligence officer who provided PowerPoint slides “in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy.”

According to the Post, a presentation for senior NSA analysts described PRISM “as the most prolific contributor to the president’s daily brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year.”

The daily brief contains the nation’s most valuable intelligence secrets and goes only to the president and a handful of top aides each morning.

According to the briefing slides, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports, the Post reported.

PRISM analysts can use search terms to delve into computer systems to pull out selected information. The search terms are designed to look for data that is foreign in origin, but, according to the briefing materials, the NSA concedes it inevitably picks up considerable information on Americans.

In most cases, Internet companies have voluntarily cooperated with PRISM in return for immunity from lawsuits, the Post said.

But in 2008, Congress gave the Justice Department the authority to seek a secret court order to force a reluctant company to comply. The Post said that Microsoft became the first corporate partner for PRISM in 2007 and that Apple held out until 2012.

Microsoft and Apple both disputed they had had signed on to any such program.

“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis,” Microsoft said in a statement on its website. “In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”

Apple said, “We have never heard of PRISM. 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.”

Yahoo issued a similar denial.

“Yahoo! takes users’ privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network,” the company said in a statement.

Google said it “does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

And Joe Sullivan, chief security officer at Facebook, said protecting users’ privacy and data is a top priority.

“We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers,” he said. “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.”

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Frightening government overreach or valuable law enforcement tool?

nsaThat’s the question politicians in Washington, and millions of citizens around the United States, asked on Thursday due to an explosive report suggesting that the government has been collecting millions of Americans’ phone records.

FBI Direct Robert Mueller will be asked about the matter — revealed after a British newspaper, the Guardian, published a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order that applied to phone data from Verizon — when he appears next week before the House Judiciary Committee. The panel’s chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, issued a statement Thursday saying he was “very concerned that the Department of Justice may have abused the intent of the law, and we will investigate.”

The report will also be the subject of an upcoming classified briefing by Attorney General Eric Holder to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, is calling for a similar closed-door briefing for the entire U.S. Senate.

When she read the news Thursday morning, the Maryland Democrat said, “It was like, ‘Oh, God, not one more thing … where we’re trying to protect America and then it looks like we’re spying.’”

Not everyone in the nation’s capital is outraged — with some saying the real travesty would be if the program, which they describe as valuable, was halted.

Reps. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, the two top Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, said at least one terrorist attack domestically has been stopped in recent years because of the program. They both stressed that “this important collection tool does not allow the government to eavesdrop” and that it is routinely reviewed by Congress.

The order published by the Guardian is a “three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years,” explained Sen. Dianne Feinstein — so that while the uproar may be new, the program is not.

“This renewal is carried out by the FISA court under the business records section of the Patriot Act,” said the California Democrat. “Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed by Congress.”

An author of the Patriot Act disagrees. Rep. James Sensenbrenner said he is “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the act.”

“These reports are deeply concerning and raise questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure,” the Wisconsin Republican wrote in a letter to Holder.

In 2006, it was reported the National Security Agency was secretly collecting telephone records in an effort to root out terror plots.

“Verizon’s wireless and wireline companies did not provide to NSA customer records or call data, local or otherwise,” the company said at the time.

Like the FBI and the NSA, Verizon declined comment to the media Thursday on the Guardian report. But company Vice President Randy Milch, in a note to employees, did say the newspaper’s story may spur the company to respond in defiance of a promise of secrecy.

The newspaper published the four-page, top-secret government order requiring “originating and terminating” phone numbers plus the location, time and duration of calls from the communications giant. It lets the FBI and NSA to obtain the records from April 25 to July 19.

The order applies to Verizon Business Network Services, an operation not described on the company’s website. Its scope was not immediately clear, though the Guardian claimed “millions of U.S. customers of Verizon” were affected by the collection of information “regardless of whether they are suspected of wrongdoing.”

In his letter to Verizon employees, Milch said that his company would not provide the contents of any communications “or the name, address or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”

An Obama administration official said any such order would relate “exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.”

This kind of information “allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities,” the unnamed official said in a statement to media.

Controversy over the Guardian report comes as the White House fends off privacy complaints on other fronts as well. The administration is under fire following revelations the Justice Department seized two months of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors — something done as part of an investigation into leaks of classified information.

Plus, The Washington Post and the Guardian reported that U.S. intelligence has a broad secret data mining program that allows access to central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies — among them Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Apple — to extract e-mail, photos and other private consumer communications.

The American Civil Liberties Union called it “beyond Orwellian (in allowing) basic democratic rights (to be) surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights blasted it as “the broadest surveillance order to ever had been issued: It requires no level of suspicion.”

Many in President Barack Obama’s own party spoke forcefully against it as well.

Three Democratic representatives — John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert Scott of Virginia — said the program is “highly problematic and reveals serious flaws in the scope and application of the” Patriot Act.

“(The revelations) confirm our fears — that the law would be distorted to allow for ongoing, indiscriminate collection of data,” they wrote.

Sen. Mark Udall, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the program as “the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking.”

One of them: former Vice President Al Gore.

“Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee wrote on Twitter.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. government has obtained a top secret court order that requires Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing daily basis,” the UK-based Guardian newspaper reported.

The four-page order, which The Guardian published on its websiteWednesday, requires the communications giant to turn over “originating and terminating” telephone numbers as well as the location, time and duration of the calls — and demands that the order be kept secret.

If genuine, it gives the NSA blanket access to the records of millions of Verizon customers’ domestic and foreign phone calls made between April 25, when the order was signed, and July 19, when it expires.

cell phone driver

Photo courtesy of

While the report infuriated people across the country — former Vice President Al Gore called the idea “obscenely outrageous” — a senior official in the Obama administration defended the idea of such an order early Thursday.

Without acknowledging whether the order exists, the administration official emphasized that such an order does not include collection of “the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.”

“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States,” the unnamed official said in a written statement to media.

The official also insisted that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes intelligence collection. Activities “are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”

For more on this CNN story, click here.