NSA Director Denies Knowledge of Google, Yahoo Hack

Gen. Keith Alexander was asked about the report during an on-stage interview at a conference on cybersecurity hosted by Bloomberg Government.

"Not to my knowledge, that's never happened," Alexander said.

The Washington Post report, the latest product of the disclosures of former government contractor Edward Snowden, described a program dubbed MUSCULAR through which the NSA and the British spy outfit GCHQ have been tapping into the fiber-optic cables that run between the companies' overseas data centers and copying the flow of data.

[Related: Report: NSA breaks into Yahoo, Google data center links]

Alexander, who said he was unfamiliar with the report, recalled the media coverage of the earlier Snowden revelation of the NSA's PRISM program to obtain emails and electronic communications from Internet companies, describing reports that characterized the NSA as having opened up a "back door" the firms' servers as "factually incorrect."

"This is not NSA breaking into any databases. It would be illegal for us to do that. And so I don't know what the report is, but I can tell you factually, we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers," he said. "We are not authorized to go into a U.S. company's server and take data. We have to go through a court process for doing that."

Asked whether that meant that whenever the NSA reviews data from U.S. Internet companies, that information was obtained through a court order, Alexander replied: "That's correct."

[Related: Picking a Fight Over NSA Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era]

But the program described in the Post report operates outside of the United States, where the NSA is unfettered by many of the constraints on its domestic operations. "Such large-scale collection of Internet content would be illegal in the United States, but the operations take place overseas, where the NSA is allowed to presume that anyone using a foreign data link is a foreigner," the paper reported.

So where the PRISM program operates under the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, there appears to be no such legal check on MUSCULAR, which is said to operate on a vast scale. In one 30-day period earlier this year, the NSA reportedly collected more than 180 million records.

[Related: Google Tells Feds It Wants to Disclose Surveillance Orders]

The latest allegations are likely to further erode confidence overseas in the privacy protections in place at U.S. technology firms. Many cloud providers have warned that foreign businesses and consumers have been growing wary of storing their data with U.S. firms, worrying that their information could be accessed by intelligence operatives working under the Patriot Act.

Those concerns have only been exacerbated by the Snowden revelations. Acknowledging that they face a deficit of trust, several tech companies, including Google and Yahoo, have been seeking authorization from the government to publish more information about the national security orders they receive from intelligence officials. The Justice Department has been resisting those requests.

Even still, those orders are the product of the FISA court, which, though it is often criticized for rubber-stamping the requests of the intelligence community, is nonetheless an established institution within the judicial system. The latest program to come to light describes a sophisticated and clandestine operation beyond the reach of the court, and carried out without any knowledge or cooperation of the companies.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about government in CIO's Government Drilldown.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags The Washington Postbusiness issuesnsawashington postManagement Topics | GovernmentSnowdenprivacyBloombergGCHQYahooManagement TopicsGooglesecurityGen. Keith Alexanderbusiness

More about BloombergFacebookGCHQGoogleNSAYahoo

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Kenneth Corbin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place