N.S.A. Said to Have Collected Data From Internet Firms
By CHARLIE SAVAGE and EDWARD WYATT
The federal government appears to have been secretly tapping the nation’s largest Internet companies going back nearly six years — including Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple — according to documents that emerged on Thursday even as officials confirmed they had been compiling a vast library of Americans’ phone call records in the fight against terrorism.
While the data provided varies according to the online provider, it could include e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing, and logins — according to a presentation describing the highly classified National Security Agency program dubbed PRISM.
The documents also said that “special requests” for information were available. The New York Times has not confirmed the authenticity of the documents, and several of the Internet companies issued statements strongly denying knowledge of or participation in the program. The White House made no immediate comment.
But the disclosure of the documents by American and British newspapers came just hours after government officials acknowledged a separate seven-year effort to sweep up records of telephone calls inside the United States. Together, the unfolding disclosures opened an extraordinary window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration.
The extraordinary revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations. Both were reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while The Washington Post, relying upon the same presentation, simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.
Before the disclosure of the alleged Internet company surveillance program late Thursday, the White House and Congressional leaders defended the phone program, saying it was legal and necessary to protect national security.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the kind of surveillance at issue “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.” He added: “The president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties.”
The Guardian and The Post posted several slides from the 41-page presentation about the Internet program, listing the companies involved — which included Yahoo, Microsoft, Paytalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube — and the dates they joined the program, as well as listing the types of information collected under the program.
The N.S.A. and other government agencies declined to comment about the disclosure, which appeared to create consternation among intelligence officials.