In most issues of EFFector, we give an overview of all the work we’re doing at EFF right now. This week, we’re taking a deep dive into a single issue: new revelations of a massive domestic surveillance program leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post.
Last night, we received confirmation from a report in the Guardian that the National Security Agency (NSA) is currently collecting the call records of every Verizon customer in America. The NSA order forces Verizon to provide “on an ongoing daily basis” all call records for any call “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls” and any call made “between the United States and abroad.”
And that’s not all. Today, the Washington Post and the Guardian published reports based on information provided by a career intelligence officer showing how the NSA and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies. The government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
Mounting Evidence of the NSA Warrantless Surveillance
EFF has so much evidence of the surveillance now that we’ve created a timeline.
In brief, America first learned about the secret surveillance in a 2005 New York Times exposé which disclosed one aspect of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. We learned that the Bush Administration had been illegally tapping phone lines in the U.S. without warrants or court permission immediately following the 9/11 attacks. President Bush himself admitted at least some of what the government was doing.
In early 2006, EFF received photos and blueprints from former AT&T technician Mark Klein. These undisputed documents show that AT&T installed a fiberoptic splitter at its facility in San Francisco which sends copies of all AT&T customers’ emails, web browsing, and other Internet traffic to the NSA.
Later in 2006, USA Today and a number of other newspapers published a story disclosing that the NSA had compiled a massive database of call records from American telecommunications companies, which included AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South. This was confirmed by a number of members of Congress.
Information has continued to trickle out over time. In 2009, the New York Times reported the NSA was still collecting purely domestic communications in a “significant and systematic” way after the FISA Amendments Act was passed in 2008.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Verizon
The news of the last few days has confirmed the records portion of the surveillance, and gave us some additional hints about the government’s arguments in support of its actions. The secret court order issued to Verizon was a Section 215 order (50 U.S.C. sec. 1861), a controversial legal instrument greatly expanded when George Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law on October 26, 2001. It allows the government to seek “any tangible things” in connection with an authorized investigation and is often known as the “business records” provision of FISA.
Section 215 allows for secret court orders to records that are “relevant” to a government investigation – a far lower threshold and more expansive reach than a warrant based on probable cause. The list of possible “tangible things” the government can obtain is seemingly limitless, and could include everything from driver’s license records to Internet browsing history.
We’ve long suspected that the government has been using Section 215 to conduct dragnet surveillance. Now we have incontrovertible evidence. Senator Ron Wyden has warned that “when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
Senator Wyden is right.
Video: Members of Congress and The White House are defending a top secret NSA program that continues to collect data from millions of phone records, but civil liberties supporters remain skeptical. The Post’s Ellen Nakashima explains.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.
The court-approved program is focused on foreign communications traffic, which often flows through U.S. servers even when sent from one overseas location to another. Between 2004 and 2007, Bush administration lawyers persuaded federal FISA judges to issue surveillance orders in a fundamentally new form. Until then the government had to show probable cause that a particular “target” and “facility” were both connected to terrorism or espionage.
In four new orders, which remain classified, the court defined massive data sets as “facilities” and agreed to certify periodically that the government had reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of “U.S. persons” data without a warrant.
In a statement issue late Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper 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. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
Clapper added that there were numerous inaccuracies in reports about PRISM by The Post and the Guardian newspaper, but he did not specify any.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “I would just push back on the idea that the court has signed off on it, so why worry? This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government.”
Several companies contacted by The Post said they had no knowledge of the program, did not allow direct government access to their servers and asserted that they responded only to targeted requests for information.
“We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers,” said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook. “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.”
“We have never heard of PRISM,” said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple. “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.”
It is possible that the conflict between the PRISM slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author. In another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers.
Government officials and the document itself made clear that the NSA regarded the identities of its private partners as PRISM’s most sensitive secret, fearing that the companies would withdraw from the program if exposed. “98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don’t harm these sources,” the briefing’s author wrote in his speaker’s notes.
An internal presentation of 41 briefing slides on PRISM, dated April 2013 and 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 items last year. According to the slides and other supporting materials obtained by The Post, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil.
The technology companies, whose cooperation is essential to PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley, according to the document. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted traffic of substantial intelligence interest during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Dropbox, the cloud storage and synchronization service, is described as “coming soon.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who had classified knowledge of the program as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were unable to speak of it when they warned in a Dec. 27, 2012, floor debate that the FISA Amendments Act had what both of them called a “back-door search loophole” for the content of innocent Americans who were swept up in a search for someone else.
“As it is written, there is nothing to prohibit the intelligence community from searching through a pile of communications, which may have been incidentally or accidentally been collected without a warrant, to deliberately search for the phone calls or e-mails of specific Americans,” Udall said.
Wyden repeatedly asked the NSA to estimate the number of Americans whose communications had been incidentally collected, and the agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, insisted there was no way to find out. Eventually Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III wrote Wyden a letter stating that it would violate the privacy of Americans in NSA data banks to try to estimate their number.
Roots in the ’70s
PRISM is an heir, in one sense, to a history of intelligence alliances with as many as 100 trusted U.S. companies since the 1970s. The NSA calls these Special Source Operations, and PRISM falls under that rubric.
The Silicon Valley operation works alongside a parallel program, code-named BLARNEY, that gathers up “metadata” — technical information about communications traffic and network devices — as it streams past choke points along the backbone of the Internet. BLARNEY’s top-secret program summary, set down in the slides alongside a cartoon insignia of a shamrock and a leprechaun hat, describes it as “an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.”
But the PRISM program appears to more nearly resemble the most controversial of the warrantless surveillance orders issued by President George W. Bush after the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its history, in which President Obama presided over exponential growth in a program that candidate Obama criticized, shows how fundamentally surveillance law and practice have shifted away from individual suspicion in favor of systematic, mass collection techniques.
The Obama administration points to ongoing safeguards in the form of “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.”
And it is true that the PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.
Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that “it’s nothing to worry about.”
Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially. The same math explains the aphorism, from the John Guare play, that no one is more than “six degrees of separation” from any other person.
Hepting v. AT&T
In Hepting v. AT&T, EFF sued the telecommunications giant on behalf of its customers for violating privacy law by collaborating with the NSA in the massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans’ communications.
Evidence in the case included undisputed evidence provided by former AT&T telecommunications technician Mark Klein showing AT&T has routed copies of Internet traffic to a secret room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA.
The case was filed on January 31, 2006 and the government quickly intervened. In the Spring of 2006, over 50 other lawsuits were filed against various telecommunications companies, in response to a USA Today article confirming the surveillance of communications and communications records. The cases were combined into a multi-district litigation proceeding called In re NSA. EFF was named co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
In June of 2006, the Court rejected both the government’s attempt to dismiss the case on the grounds of the state secret privilege and AT&T’s various arguments in favor of dismissal.
In August of 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on the case. No decision was reached, however In July, 2008, after a long and contentious battle in Congress, the government and AT&T were awarded the so-called retroactive immunity from liability under the controversial FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which was enacted in response to our court victories in Hepting. Signed by President Bush in 2008, the FAA allows the Attorney General to require the dismissal of the lawsuits over the telecoms’ participation in the warrantless surveillance program if the government secretly certifies to the court that the surveillance did not occur, was legal, or was authorized by the president. The AG filed the required certification in September of 2008.
In June of 2009, a federal judge dismissed Hepting and dozens of other lawsuits against telecoms. EFF appealed that decision but it was affirmed, and in October, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Exclusive: Top secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over all call data shows scale of domestic surveillance under Obama
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government’s domestic spying powers.
Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.
The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.
The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication on Wednesday. All declined. The agencies were also offered the opportunity to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.
The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself.
“We decline comment,” said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman.
The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls”.
The order directs Verizon to “continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order”. It specifies that the records to be produced include “session identifying information”, such as “originating and terminating number”, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and “comprehensive communication routing information”.
The information is classed as “metadata”, or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such “metadata” is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.
While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.
It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks. It is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.
The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance activities.
For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on “secret legal interpretations” to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.
Because those activities are classified, the senators, both members of the Senate intelligence committee, have been prevented from specifying which domestic surveillance programs they find so alarming. But the information they have been able to disclose in their public warnings perfectly tracks both the specific law cited by the April 25 court order as well as the vast scope of record-gathering it authorized.
Julian Sanchez, a surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, explained: “We’ve certainly seen the government increasingly strain the bounds of ‘relevance’ to collect large numbers of records at once — everyone at one or two degrees of separation from a target — but vacuuming all metadata up indiscriminately would be an extraordinary repudiation of any pretence of constraint or particularized suspicion.” The April order requested by the FBI and NSA does precisely that.
The law on which the order explicitly relies is the so-called “business records” provision of the Patriot Act, 50 USC section 1861. That is the provision which Wyden and Udall have repeatedly cited when warning the public of what they believe is the Obama administration’s extreme interpretation of the law to engage in excessive domestic surveillance.
In a letter to attorney general Eric Holder last year, they argued that “there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”
“We believe,” they wrote, “that most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted” the “business records” provision of the Patriot Act.
Privacy advocates have long warned that allowing the government to collect and store unlimited “metadata” is a highly invasive form of surveillance of citizens’ communications activities. Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.
Such metadata is what the US government has long attempted to obtain in order to discover an individual’s network of associations and communication patterns. The request for the bulk collection of all Verizon domestic telephone records indicates that the agency is continuing some version of the data-mining program begun by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack.
The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implemented a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records. A furore erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported that the NSA had “been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth” and was “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.” Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.
These recent events reflect how profoundly the NSA’s mission has transformed from an agency exclusively devoted to foreign intelligence gathering, into one that focuses increasingly on domestic communications. A 30-year employee of the NSA, William Binney, resigned from the agency shortly after 9/11 in protest at the agency’s focus on domestic activities.
In the mid-1970s, Congress, for the first time, investigated the surveillance activities of the US government. Back then, the mandate of the NSA was that it would never direct its surveillance apparatus domestically.
At the conclusion of that investigation, Frank Church, the Democratic senator from Idaho who chaired the investigative committee, warned: “The NSA’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”
Additional reporting by Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman
Verizon forced to hand over telephone data – full court ruling
The US government is collecting the phone records of millions of US customers of Verizon under a top secret court order. Read the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order
NSA PRISM program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others
• Top secret PRISM program claims direct access to servers of firms including Google, Skype and Yahoo
• Companies deny any knowledge of program in operation since 2007
- The Guardian, Friday 7 June 2013
The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.
The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.
Although the presentation claims the program is run with the assistance of the companies, all those who responded to a Guardian request for comment on Thursday denied knowledge of any such program.
In a statement, Google said: “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. 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.”
Several senior tech executives insisted that they had no knowledge of PRISM or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a program. “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge,” one said.
An Apple spokesman said it had “never heard” of PRISM.
The NSA access was enabled by changes to US surveillance law introduced under President Bush and renewed under Obama in December 2012.
The program facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information. The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the US.
Disclosure of the PRISM program follows a leak to the Guardian on Wednesday of a top-secret court order compelling telecoms provider Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of US customers.
The participation of the internet companies in PRISM will add to the debate, ignited by the Verizon revelation, about the scale of surveillance by the intelligence services. Unlike the collection of those call records, this surveillance can include the content of communications and not just the metadata.
Some of the world’s largest internet brands are claimed to be part of the information-sharing program since its introduction in 2007. Microsoft – which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan “Your privacy is our priority” – was the first, with collection beginning in December 2007.
It was followed by Yahoo in 2008; Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009; YouTube in 2010; Skype and AOL in 2011; and finally Apple, which joined the program in 2012. The program is continuing to expand, with other providers due to come online.
Collectively, the companies cover the vast majority of online email, search, video and communications networks.
The extent and nature of the data collected from each company varies.
Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users’ communications under US law, but the PRISM program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers. The NSA document notes the operations have “assistance of communications providers in the US”.
The revelation also supports concerns raised by several US senators during the renewal of the Fisa Amendments Act in December 2012, who warned about the scale of surveillance the law might enable, and shortcomings in the safeguards it introduces.
When the FAA was first enacted, defenders of the statute argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the PRISM program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.
A chart prepared by the NSA, contained within the top-secret document obtained by the Guardian, underscores the breadth of the data it is able to obtain: email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP (Skype, for example) chats, file transfers, social networking details, and more.
The PRISM program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.
With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.
The presentation claims PRISM was introduced to overcome what the NSA regarded as shortcomings of Fisa warrants in tracking suspected foreign terrorists. It noted that the US has a “home-field advantage” due to housing much of the internet’s architecture. But the presentation claimed “Fisa constraints restricted our home-field advantage” because Fisa required individual warrants and confirmations that both the sender and receiver of a communication were outside the US.
“Fisa was broken because it provided privacy protections to people who were not entitled to them,” the presentation claimed. “It took a Fisa court order to collect on foreigners overseas who were communicating with other foreigners overseas simply because the government was collecting off a wire in the United States. There were too many email accounts to be practical to seek Fisas for all.”
The new measures introduced in the FAA redefines “electronic surveillance” to exclude anyone “reasonably believed” to be outside the USA – a technical change which reduces the bar to initiating surveillance.
The act also gives the director of national intelligence and the attorney general power to permit obtaining intelligence information, and indemnifies internet companies against any actions arising as a result of co-operating with authorities’ requests.
In short, where previously the NSA needed individual authorisations, and confirmation that all parties were outside the USA, they now need only reasonable suspicion that one of the parties was outside the country at the time of the records were collected by the NSA.
The document also shows the FBI acts as an intermediary between other agencies and the tech companies, and stresses its reliance on the participation of US internet firms, claiming “access is 100% dependent on ISP provisioning”.
In the document, the NSA hails the PRISM program as “one of the most valuable, unique and productive accesses for NSA”.
It boasts of what it calls “strong growth” in its use of the PRISM program to obtain communications. The document highlights the number of obtained communications increased in 2012 by 248% for Skype – leading the notes to remark there was “exponential growth in Skype reporting; looks like the word is getting out about our capability against Skype”. There was also a 131% increase in requests for Facebook data, and 63% for Google.
The NSA document indicates that it is planning to add Dropbox as a PRISM provider. The agency also seeks, in its words, to “expand collection services from existing providers”.
The revelations echo fears raised on the Senate floor last year during the expedited debate on the renewal of the FAA powers which underpin the PRISM program, which occurred just days before the act expired.
Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware specifically warned that the secrecy surrounding the various surveillance programs meant there was no way to know if safeguards within the act were working.
“The problem is: we here in the Senate and the citizens we represent don’t know how well any of these safeguards actually work,” he said.
“The law doesn’t forbid purely domestic information from being collected. We know that at least one Fisa court has ruled that the surveillance program violated the law. Why? Those who know can’t say and average Americans can’t know.”
Other senators also raised concerns. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon attempted, without success, to find out any information on how many phone calls or emails had been intercepted under the program.
When the law was enacted, defenders of the FAA argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the PRISM program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.
When the NSA reviews a communication it believes merits further investigation, it issues what it calls a “report”. According to the NSA, “over 2,000 PRISM-based reports” are now issued every month. There were 24,005 in 2012, a 27% increase on the previous year.
In total, more than 77,000 intelligence reports have cited the PRISM program.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, that it was astonishing the NSA would even ask technology companies to grant direct access to user data.
“It’s shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this,” he said. “The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications.
“This is unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure. That’s profoundly troubling to anyone who is concerned about that separation.”
A senior administration official said in a statement: “The Guardian and Washington Post articles refer to collection of communications pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law does not allow the targeting of any US citizen or of any person located within the United States.
“The program is subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-US persons outside the US are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about US persons.
“This program was recently reauthorized by Congress after extensive hearings and debate.
“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.
“The Government may only use Section 702 to acquire foreign intelligence information, which is specifically, and narrowly, defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This requirement applies across the board, regardless of the nationality of the target.”
Additional reporting by James Ball and Dominic Rushe