People who think their correspondence and
postings through sites like Google, Facebook and Apple are safe from
prying eyes should think again after reports on Thursday exposed US
government data collection programmes.
Reports in the Washington Post and The Guardian said US intelligence services tapped directly in to the servers of those companies and six others to extract emails, voice calls, videos, photos and other communications from their customers without the need for a warrant.
Spokesmen for Google and Apple denied their companies had any knowledge of the programme or that they provided govenment agencies with back door access to customer data.
The secret programme, called PRISM, is the leading source of raw material for the National Security Agency (NSA), the secretive US intelligence operation that monitors electronic communications, said the Washington Post. The newspaper said its source for the story was an internal presentation to senior NSA analysts.
The reports in the two newspapers surfaced amid an uproar over an earlier report by the British daily of FBI requests of details of all the phone calls that were placed over the network of the leading US telecommunications company Verizon.
PRISM was initiated in 2007 starting with Microsoft, the reports said. The other companies which allegedly cooperated with the NSA and FBI are Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube and PalTalk, a smaller provider that is said to have hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the current Syrian crisis.
While the main target of the dragnet was supposed to be foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terror, the reports said that enforcement of this rule was extremely lax and that agency protocols included surveillance of every person on a suspect's contact list, which would have included many Americans.
A Google spokesperson denied that the company had any knowledge of PRISM or that it provided any government agency with back door access to the company's servers.
"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," spokesperson Chris Gaither told dpa. "We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully."
Gaither also denied that Google has created a government back door into its systems.
Apple spokesman Alan Hely also denied any knowledge of the alleged programme.
"We have never heard of PRISM," Hely told dpa. "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."
Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth told CNN the social-media giant won't give government agencies "direct access" to its servers.
"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," Seth said.
Earlier Thursday in Washington, US officials defended the massive mining of telephone data, saying it has been going on for years.
The Guardian revealed that Verizon had been ordered to supply the NSA with information about all phone calls it handles within the US as well as between the US and other countries.
The White House said the phone data programme was monitored under a "robust legal regime" to make sure it complies with the constitution.
"This strict regime reflects the president's desire to strike the right balance between protecting our national security and protecting constitutional rights and civil liberties," said deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"It's called protecting America," Senator Dianne Feinstein said of
the surveillance of telephone records.
Feinstein said the court order by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was a routine periodic renewal commanding access to phone company records by security officials.
She said Congress is regularly briefed on the practice, which she said was legal under the 2001 Patriot Act.
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