Guardian: PRISM “collection directly from the servers”

posted at 2:31 pm on June 8, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Well, golly, this might be just a tad inconvenient for the establishment spin on PRISM, if true.  After the Washington Post and then the Guardian exposed the NSA’s Internet snooping program, a few of the named Internet companies denied giving the NSA any access to their servers.  Instead, they told the New York Times that they provided blocks of information pursuant to FISA court orders and placed them in virtual dropboxes for the agency to access.  That would, as Red Alert Politics notes, make the program legal and narrower than originally thought, although still a worrisome development for privacy.

However, now the Guardian says that this is just spin, because new slides from the internal PRISM presentation claim to have direct access to the servers after all.  Oh, and PRISM and BLARNEY weren’t the only NSA programs involved, either:

Some articles have claimed that Prism is not a tool used for the collection of information from US companies, but is instead an internal tool used to analyse such information.

Others have speculated – in the light of denials from technology companies about granting “direct access” to servers – that Prism operates through interception of communication cables.

Both of these theories appear to be contradicted by internal NSA documents.

In the interests of aiding the debate over how Prism works, the Guardian is publishing an additional slide from the 41-slide presentation which details Prism and its operation. We have redacted some program names.

The slide, below, details different methods of data collection under the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 (which was renewed in December 2012). It clearly distinguishes Prism, which involves data collection from servers, as distinct from four different programs involving data collection from “fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past”.

Here’s the slide:



It is at least possible to square the two accounts.  The language in this slide could refer to the collection of the data directly from the virtual dropboxes on the company servers NSA accesses. Note that the two methods highlighted here are three programs dealing with “upstream” collection through taps on cables and other “infrastructure,” and the other being PRISM for direct collection.  There isn’t a mention of dropboxes, so it’s possible that “Collection directly” refers to the dropboxes.

However, this slide presents another issue.  The explanation last night and this morning was that the Internet companies only provided data to NSA covered under FISA court warrants, and that supposedly guarded against the collection and spying on domestic content.  However, if the NSA has not one but three four different programs doing “upstream” collection from taps on cables and other “infrastructure,” then how can they avoid collecting content created by US citizens intended for domestic use?

Maybe that’s why the NSA “at times” ended up collecting what they claimed they didn’t:

The National Security Agency has at times mistakenly intercepted the private email messages and phone calls of Americans who had no link to terrorism, requiring Justice Department officials to report the errors to a secret national security court and destroy the data, according to two former U.S. intelligence officials.

At least some of the phone calls and emails were pulled from among the hundreds of millions stored by telecommunications companies as part of an NSA surveillance program. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Thursday night publicly acknowledged what he called “a sensitive intelligence collection program” after its existence was disclosed by the Guardian newspaper.

Ret. Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama’s DNI in 2009 and 2010, told NBC News that, in one instance in 2009, analysts entered a phone number into agency computers and “put one digit wrong,” and mined a large volume of information about Americans with no connection to terror. The matter was reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose judges required that all the data be destroyed, he said.

Another former senior official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed Blair’s recollection and said the incident created serious problems for the Justice Department, which represents the NSA before the federal judges on the secret court.

The judges “were really upset about this,” said the former official. As a result, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to the judges that the intelligence agencies would take steps to correct the problem as a condition of renewing the NSA’s surveillance program.

How did the NSA collect “phone calls”? Supposedly, they weren’t tapping phone lines en masse but just going after the metadata.  Perhaps those came from Skype, one of the companies cooperating with the NSA?

Glenn Greenwald doesn’t seem to think that the “collection directly” note refers to dropboxes, either:

Perhaps we’ll get more clarification on this from the NSA and the Obama administration, but it had better improve on “trust us.”

Update: There are four “upstream” collection programs, not three, two of which have code names still unknown.  Fixed the reference above.

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If the GOP can’t capitalize on the fact that the Democrats (especially those occupying the White House) have been caught red-handed violating your civil and human rights with some type of ill intent, then fold up the tent and go home. Their brand is circling the drain. Do something. NOW.

Philly on June 8, 2013 at 2:58 PM

This might make more of an impact if not for the fact that the Patriot Act was enacted under the GOP, the FISA Amendment Act was enacted in 2008 and signed by Bush, and was renewed in December 2012 under a GOP congress. (yes I know the Congress in 2008 was Dem, but like the PA, and TARP, the Dems did whatever the GOP wanted).

Blind partisanship and hatred blinds you (plural, not personal) to understanding that there is fundamentally no difference between either party. Neither care for your “civil rights”. It is now, and has always been about power, money, and control. If you honestly think this would not have continued under a GOP prez, you are sadly mistaken.

pcbedamned on June 9, 2013 at 7:27 AM

Sure people such as Google and Facebook who have marched side-by-side with this administration have denied they are knowingly involved. Suuuure.

They are either bound by law/security clearance to deny existence and therefore lying to comport with that agreement or are not in a position to have direct knowledge and therefore have preserved probable deniability.

What is clear is the companies mentioned are providing data. No matter how they slice it.

Marcus Traianus on June 9, 2013 at 9:15 AM

OFA is the destination for all the server harvesting. How else did they know where to “buy” their data.

When will BO get tied to this NSA-to-OFA information flow? What “investigative reporter” will break that?

MarkT on June 9, 2013 at 10:51 AM

One thing that is really cool about companies lying…you can sue the he11 out of them.

Ceteris Paribus on June 9, 2013 at 11:15 AM

this story is getting too confusing now. i tried to follow all the details of who said what and who claims who is lying and how many programs there are and what each program does or does not do, but i can’t understand it anymore.

if people would simply be honest then i wouldn’t have this problem. but no, everyone has to use tricky “weasel words” and orwellian word games. i don’t know what it will take for these people to be honest.

Sachiko on June 9, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Hmm, don’t see PayPal. How come?

PattyJ on June 9, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Hmm, don’t see PayPal. How come?

PattyJ on June 9, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Paypal is bound by many of the same laws that govern brick-and-mortar financial institutions, and the government makes no secret of how it can track your financial transactions.

gryphon202 on June 10, 2013 at 8:27 AM

If the GOP can’t capitalize on the fact that the Democrats (especially those occupying the White House) have been caught red-handed violating your civil and human rights with some type of ill intent, then fold up the tent and go home. Their brand is circling the drain. Do something. NOW.

Philly on June 8, 2013 at 2:58 PM

As the GOP championed and advocated all of this in it’s initial formation – more robust and warrant-less intrusions that what’s been revealed here – how could they possibly ‘capitalize’ on the repulsion to it now? And as the Dems/Obama spent most of the time shouting ‘Big Brother’ at Bush & co – how could anyone not be more than disappointed at their current pleas for ‘context and understanding’.
We are pretty far down the rabbit hole.
So far down that many here who called for the capture and execution of Julian Asanage, well they now want to immunize and give a medal to Edward Snowden.

verbaluce on June 10, 2013 at 9:36 AM

More food for thought. Google has, from its beginning, been remarkable in its ability to give away free everything. Free email, free permanent email storage, free dropbox storage. Google has been in the business of giving away enormous amounts of expensive storage for free to anyone who bothers to create a login.

It’s always been assumed that adwords is their primary revenue stream, but now I’m wondering if the NSA is really their primary revenue stream, and I’m also wondering if Google’s servers even belong to google.

Technically, google would not be allowing the NSA to download directly from THEIR servers if their data servers are actually NSA property.

jms on June 10, 2013 at 9:56 AM