Revelations that the US government has direct access to data stored on the servers of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and six other major internet companies fail to give all the information, the director of US national intelligence has said.
Fresh on the heels of revelations on Wednesday that the National Security Agency (NSA) had obtained a three month court order to monitor the phones calls of millions of Verizon customers in the US, it was revealed on Thursday that the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) operate another program which gives them unfettered access to data stored on the servers of nine of the world's largest and well-known technology companies.
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Called Prism, the program allows operatives at the NSA and FBI to collect audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to help their analysts track a person's movements and contacts.
According to documents leaked by the Guardian and the Washington Post, the companies involved in the program are Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, PalTalk and YouTube with Dropbox soon to be included.
The leaked documents are part of a slide show presentation which is used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the Prism program. "Such a leak is extremely rare in the history of the NSA, which prides itself on maintaining a high level of secrecy," Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story on the Guardian's website said.
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US called the leaking of information about these programs "reprehensible" adding they put the integrity of US national security at risk:
"The unauthorised disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
However the Director of National Intelligence in the US came out on Thursday evening, saying the media reports covering the revelations contained "numerous inaccuracies" and that the collection of communications are facilitated under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
This provision is designed to allow for the gathering of foreign intelligence information concerning non-US citizens located outside of the US soil, unlike the Verizon monitoring which specifically monitored US citizens.
Clapper said: "It [Section 702] cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States."
The Prism program has been operating since 2007 with Microsoft the first company to take part in the information-sharing program followed in 2008 by Yahoo, Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009; YouTube in 2010; Skype and AOL in 2011 and finally Apple in 2012.
Following the revelations all the companies involved have denied any knowledge of the program, with Apple saying it had never even heard of Prism.
Google said that despite previous reports that it had forged a "back door" for the government, it had never provided any such access to user data.
Microsoft said it does not voluntarily participate in any government data collection and only complies "with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers."
"We have never heard of Prism," said Apple spokesman Steve Dowling. "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."
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Facebook's chief security officer Joe Sullivan said in a statement: "We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook 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."
Yahoo said in a statement that it "takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."
The leaked documents show that the program relies on the participation of internet companies, claiming "access is 100% dependent on ISP provisioning."
Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union said 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. 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."
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