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US confirms secret web data collection overseas

Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt and Peter Baker (via NYT/ AFR) | June 7, 2013
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.

"As far as I know, this is an exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years," Feinstein said, adding that it was carried out by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the business records section of the Patriot Act.

"Therefore, it is lawful," she said. "It has been briefed to Congress."

While refusing to confirm or to directly comment on the reported court order, Verizon, in an internal email to employees, defended its release of calling information to the NSA.

Randy Milch, an executive vice president and general counsel, wrote that the law authorises the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.

Sprint and AT&T have also received demands for data from national security officials, according to people familiar with the requests. Those companies as well as T-Mobile and CenturyLink declined to say Thursday whether they were or had been under a similar court order.

Lawmakers and administration officials who support the phone program defended it in part by noting that it was only for metadata - like logs of calls sent and received - and did not involve listening in on peoples conversations.

The internet company program appeared to involve eavesdropping on the contents of communications of foreigners. The senior administration official said its legal basis was the so-called FISA Amendments Act, a 2008 law that allows the government to obtain an order from a national security court to conduct blanket surveillance of foreigners abroad without individualised warrants even if the interception takes place on US soil.

The law, which Congress reauthorised in late 2012, is controversial in part because Americans emails and phone calls can be swept into the database without an individualised court order when they communicate with people overseas. While the newspapers portrayed the classified documents as indicating that the NSA obtained direct access to the companies servers, several of the companies - including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple - denied that the government could do so. Instead, the companies have negotiated with the government technical means to provide specific data in response to court orders, according to people briefed on the arrangements.

"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data", the company said in a statement. "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 'backdoor into our systems, but Google does not have a 'backdoor for the government to access private user data."


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