US government is monitoring email, calls, and chat on a real-time basis “as it happens”

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Thanks to information provided by Edward Snowden, the now fugitive whistleblower still at large, last month information about the US government’s top secret surveillance program PRISM emerged. According to the information Snowden provided, the NSA and FBI have direct access to the servers to major tech companies (and thus direct access to user data)… an allegation the tech companies denied. It still isn’t entirely clear what is true and what is not but the Washington Post has just published new slides about PRISM.

According to the newly published slide, with PRISM the US government employs equipment on the property of companies such as Microsoft or Yahoo to retrieve information as desired on a real-time basis, which is then forwarded to a relevant security agency such as the NSA. Said equipment used for the operations is managed by the FBI who is then responsible for forwarding the information to the NSA or CIA.

The Washington Post also says that the system lets the NSA to “receive live notifications when a target logs on or sends and email.” It also lets the spy agency to “monitor a voice, text or voice chat as it happens.” However, it should be mentioned that it is not clear if the NSA is conducting this real-time monitoring on a general basis (i.e. monitoring everyone) or just monitoring specific targets. If I were to guess, I would say the latter but the truth is we don’t really know.

Internet companies mentioned in the slides include Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, AOL, Skype, Yahoo, and Google, most all of whom have already denied their participation in the program. It’s now up to us about whom to believe — especially considering there are conflicting reports as to what is the real truth.

More information about the new slides can be found in the via link below.

[via The Washington Post]

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11 comments

  1. Flowers ForA

    Good point Louis!

    Perhaps non-US internet users here should check their own national regulations and laws on e.g. national security and anti-terrorism, government data collections,… They may be very surprised about what their own governments have made available for the likes of US NSA.

    Everybody here knows about reported (and belatedly admitted) vulnarabilities in search engines, about flaws and blated misuse of social network data (which we all thought to really be private and well proteted) and about a lot of other stuff that proves that netproviders (or ICT-providers in general) have to deal with pressures coming from all over the world. Economic, political, diplomatic,military, intelligence, you name it.

    Examples? Google or Microsoft as such do a lot more than what they will ever make public, but they also have to tread carefully on China’s or Russia’s turf (to name just two); individual governments worldwide gather (and share) information beyound what their own laws admit (that’s what all secret secret services do, US, UK, Aussi, China, Russian, bigger European countries, Israel,..); multinationals and smaller companies collect info via ads, online orders, information requests,… which can easily be linked to other data and can be used for goals that are not so innocent as they like to claim.

    @Dundee: I wouldn’t be too sure about there being no snooper lads Down Under.

    @Darcy: surely you know that Orwell considered the Sovjet regime as the embodyment of totalitarianism and that anti-communism in the US manifested itself for the first time in 1919-1920. Orwell, as far as I know, never envisaged the US ever becoming a state with totalitarian treats and I think that the majority of Americans would vehemently reject the notion. “Big Brother” first is the immaterial representation of such a state and becomes tangible only in the later stages of the novel (or the movie). Perhaps the US model and (legal) realisation of democracy suffices to fend off open totalitarionism, but maybe it also allows for a hidden form of it. Time will show, but I do fear that, worldwide, democracy is being replaced by some system that history has no comparison for.

    I’m sorry if this comment has a slight political sound to it, but I’ve tried to avoid explicit political statements. The subject (and above commments) invites for more than just purely technical reactions.

    So, to end on a technical note… Has there, in the past 10- 15 years or so, been such a growth in root server capacity and functional bandwith that such astronomical amounts of data can be efficiently stored and processed or have algorithms evolved to such high level of “intelligence” as to (partially) compensate for hardware requirements that would be difficult to meet? I mean (e.g.): hardware alone would put measurable pressures on the need for and the availability of energy, and the cost of it. Algoritms, senso strictu, would not be able to compensate for that, or could they? Have these relationships been studied and the results been published?

  2. Louis

    “it is not clear if the NSA is conducting this real-time monitoring on a general basis (i.e. monitoring everyone) or just monitoring specific targets”

    I would think, given that an email, sms, chat, voice call etc can be sent from anywhere, that in order to monitor a specific target, everyone would need to be monitored per se.

    And in that lies the whole problem — if they could prove that they can only monitor a specific target, with absolutely no contact with anyone else, no-one would have (too much of) a problem.

    But they can not, therefore we do have a (big) problem.

    It’s indeed strange how what was science fiction once, is becoming fact — was that self-fulfilling prophecies ? Next we’ll try to go to the centre of the earth, goodness knows what lurks there (I’d rather we leave that alone).

    @ Dundee : I’ve some not so good news for you — Australia is one of the (key) signatory states to the Echelon network — its main complex (Pine Gap) is under high security about 20 km from Alice Springs in the Northern Territories.

  3. Seamus McSeamus

    [@Mike]

    Yep. If a government treats its own citizens like this, then you know there is absolutely no regard for the privacy of people in other countries. Or even for the sovereignty of other countries.