America’s secret surveillance state was dragged further out of the shadows on Thursday as it emerged that the US is reaching directly into the servers of Facebook, Google and other internet companies to harvest data.
The National Security Agency’s (NSA) classified PRISM programme reportedly allows the government to collect virtually limitless amounts of information from emails, pictures and social media accounts.
The disclosure of the programme comes one day after it emerged that the government has been tracking the phone calls of millions of Americans for the last seven years, sparking accusations the Obama administration is trampling civil liberties.
Unlike the phone tracking programme, where telecom companies are forced to hand over records, PRISM appears to allow the NSA to freely search the tech firms’ networks at any time.
PRISM also allows the government access to the content of online accounts, whereas the phone programme provides data on the time and location of a call but does not tell investigators what was said.
However, the Guardian reported that several of the companies claimed to have no knowledge of that their servers were being accessed by the government.
Google said in a statement: “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.”
The scale of the operation is detailed in a 41-page slideshow obtained by the two newspapers, which describes PRISM as the single largest source of NSA data.
The Washington Post reported that of all the tools deployed by US intelligence, PRISM is the programme most regularly cited in the daily security briefing delivered to President Barack Obama each morning.
One slide shows the growth of the programme beginning with Microsoft in 2007, followed by Yahoo in 2008, Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, Skype and AOL in 2011 and finally Apple in October 2012.
Between them the nine companies cover a huge portion of all online communications worldwide. PRISM is intended for spying on foreign intelligence or terror suspects but its scale makes it inevitable that Americans are also being caught up.
James Clapper, the US’s most senior intelligence official, released a statement saying the law authorising PRISM “does not allow the targeting of any US citizen or of any person located within the United States”.
He added: “Information collected under this programme is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a variety of threats.”
One slide describes how the US is the “world’s telecommunications backbone” with most electronic data passing through the US at some point and therefore accessible to PRISM’s net.
According to the slide show, the vast programme costs a $20 million a year to run, a surprisingly low figure given its importance to US intelligence-gathering.
The disclosure that the NSA is roaming freely through Gmail accounts and monitoring Skype discussions is likely to spark a fresh backlash against a president who campaigned in 2008 on a platform of civil liberties.
Al Gore, the former Democratic vice president, described yesterday’s disclosure of the phone tracking programme as “secret blanket surveillance” that was “obscenely outrageous”.
However, senior members of both parties in Congress rushed to defend the widespread surveillance, arguing that it was critical to defending the US against terror attacks.
“It’s called protecting America,” said Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence committee.
Senators said the programme, exposed in a leaked court document obtained by the Guardian, had been running for seven years, first under George W Bush and than under Mr Obama.