Wider reports of government spying into consumer data provide a stark reminder that privacy is not guaranteed, whether you’re on a mobile device or a computer.
The latest media reports Thursday say that the National Security Agency has obtained direct access into the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other Internet giants. The intelligence agency’s mission: extract audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs when deemed necessary so that analysts can track a person’s movements and contacts over time, according to the Washington Post.
The latest report of NSA snooping is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows analysts to collect search histories, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, according to documents obtained by the Post and the Guardian, the U.K. newspaper which this week broke the story of the NSA’s access to phone records.
The Guardian’s initial report exposed a sweeping secret court order that authorized the FBI to seize all call records from a subsidiary of Verizon.
In both strategies, the Obama administration is seeking unprecedented access to information in its ongoing efforts to combat terrorism.
The latest revelaton goes beyond tapping into long-distance phone calls. PRISM involves the cooperation of the biggest global players of Silicon Valley, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.
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.”
Privacy advocates had barely a chance to respond to the NSA-Verizon order when the news of PRISM broke Thursday. However, advocates do not see the Verizon court order as unique in the Post-911 intelligence-gathering arena.
“There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel,” said Cindy Cohn, the general counsel and legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that has launched scores of lawsuits against the government over its surveillance policies. “It is likely that orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least seven years, and probably longer. We have been suing over this surveillance since 2006.”
The Washington Post reports that in exchange for immunity from lawsuits, companies such as Yahoo and AOL “are obliged to accept a ‘directive’ from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to open their servers to the FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit, which handles liaison to U.S. companies from the NSA.”
In 2008, Congress gave the Justice Department authority to for a secret order from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court to compel a reluctant company “to comply.”