The US internet surveillance program collects data from online providers including email, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and logins. Illustration: Frank Maiorana
The US federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation's largest internet companies like Google, Facebook and, most recently, Apple, in search of national security threats, the director of national intelligence confirmed Thursday night.
The confirmation of the classified program 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 revelations opened a window into the growth of government surveillance that began under the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and has clearly been embraced and even expanded under the Obama administration.
Government officials defended the two surveillance initiatives as authorised under law, known to Congress and necessary to guard the country against terrorist threats. But an array of civil liberties advocates and libertarian conservatives said the disclosures provided the most detailed confirmation yet of what has been long suspected about what the critics call an alarming and ever-widening surveillance state.
PROTECTING NATIONAL SECURITY
The internet surveillance program collects data from online providers including email, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and logins, according to classified documents obtained and posted by The Washington Post and then The Guardian on Thursday afternoon.
In confirming its existence, officials said that the program, called Prism, is authorised under a foreign intelligence law that was recently renewed by Congress, and maintained that it minimises the collection and retention of information "incidentally acquired" about Americans and permanent residents. Several of the internet companies said they did not allow the government open-ended access to their servers but complied with specific lawful requests for information.
"It cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person or anyone located within the United States," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. "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 Prism program grew out of the National Security Agency's desire several years ago to begin addressing the agency's need to keep up with the explosive growth of social media, according to people familiar with the matter.
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