Debate rages over revelation of NSA spying secrets

Debate continues to rage today over the bombshell revelations that the National Security Agency collects intelligence on individuals via telecommunications and social-networking sites. The uproar has the U.S. government and private companies admitting to some aspects of the surveillance, while vehemently denying others. A former CIA agent working for Booz Allen Hamilton has revealed himself as the leaker.

The reports from various mainstream media sources alleged that the NSA works with Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to collect and amass "meta-data" related to phone calls, though not the actual phone calls. In addition, through a system called PRISM, the NSA is able to obtain e-mail, chat, video, photos stored data, VoIP, file transfer and other material from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple, according to reports.

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But one aspect of the argument centers on whether the NSA actually has direct access to these vendors' servers. Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman first reported the NSA had direct server-based access and continued to insist yesterday this is accurate. He suggested these companies often have their own reasons to want to gain favor with the government.

However, the companies involved with the NSA intelligence-gathering effort -- which they are required to do under the Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- are rejecting any notion that the NSA is doing this collection directly inside their corporate servers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Larry Page each vehemently rejected the contention.

Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former undercover employee at the CIA now employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, admitted being the source of the leaks. He says the NSA data collection constitutes "wrongdoing contrary to the public interest" and people can now decide if they're "willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state." Snowden is reportedly in hiding in Hong Kong.

Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at consultancy IT-Harvest, says the leaks are bad news for companies such as Microsoft and Google that have been compelled to work with the NSA. Not only are governments outside the U.S., such as Germany, urging the U.S. to re-think its policies, individuals are feeling disenchanted with these service providers due to the NSA surveillance. And Stiennon says it's evident that businesses around the world will take such surveillance in account when considering whether use the services offered by such U.S. vendors.

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper -- who appeared on television saying he finds the leaks flooding the media about how the secretive NSA works to be a "gut-wrenching" experience -- also provided the Wall Street Journal with a document entitled "Facts on the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" which the paper made available publicly.

That document states that PRISM is "an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government's statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication services providers under court supervision" and that the government isn't going directly into the servers of these companies.

The intelligence-gathering is "not used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, or any other U.S. person," the document says. Rather it's aimed at a "foreign target" to gain information about "terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation."

"Targeting procedures are designed to ensure that an acquisition targets non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States for specific purposes, and also that it does not intentionally acquire a communication when all the parties are known to be inside the U.S." the document says.

The Guardian published yet more revelations about the NSA yesterday, with Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill's story on a NSA data-mining tool called "Boundless Informant" that details and maps by country the data collected by the NSA from telecommunications and social-networking sites plus more.

The Guardian article said the NSA tool collected almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from U.S. computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March.  The Mideast, Egypt and India were targets of much data collection, according to the Guardian.  

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

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