"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls," President Obama said during a press conference at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, Calif. "As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."
Clapper said as much in a statement issued on Thursday. "The program does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber. The only type of information acquired under the Court's order is telephony metadata, such as telephone numbers dialed and length of calls."
[ For an IT chief's take on NSA Prism's impact, see NSA Dragnet Debacle: What It Means To IT. ]
No eavesdropping allegation was made, however. The Guardian on Wednesday reported on the existence of a secret court order that requires Verizon to provide the NSA with all records of phone calls on its network on an ongoing basis. The records represent metadata: phone numbers involved in a call, the call time and duration, and location data, for example, but not the words that were said during the call.
In any event, the scope of the U.S. government's surveillance activities go beyond metadata. The Guardian and The Washington Post on Thursday revealed the existence of a surveillance program called PRISM, which reportedly provides the NSA and FBI with the ability to siphon data directly from the servers of major Internet companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the NSA has been getting data from AT&T and Sprint, as well as credit card companies and Internet companies.
PRISM, according to The Guardian, gathers data as well as metadata: search history, emails, file transfers and chats.
President Obama acknowledged the collection of online content from Internet companies by noting, "Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States."
Nonetheless, Internet communications involving U.S. citizens may be caught in the dragnet: Clapper said that PRISM included procedures that "minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons."
President Obama noted that the two surveillance programs have been "authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006." Documents posted on Cryptome.org suggest that PRISM has been active since at least 2003. And The Wall Street Journal says that intelligence officials trace such broad intelligence gathering back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In an emailed statement, Google insisted it doesn't provide the government with access to user data. "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," a company spokesman said in an email. "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 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."
Google reiterated and elaborated on this point in a blog post attributed to CEO Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond on Friday. "Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period," Page and Drummond state. "Until this week's reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received — an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users' Internet activity on such a scale is completely false."
Clapper claims that the surveillance program revealed by The Guardian and The Washington Post is lawful under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and that the government's activities conform with established oversight requirements. Section 215 of the Patriot Act also appears to be implicated in the government's ability to justify such surveillance.
Taking Google's statement at face value and assuming the press characterization of PRISM is accurate — and late Friday there appeared to be reason to doubt some of the initial claims — Google could be simply providing the NSA with access to data as required by law. A June 7 New York Times story indicates as much. There's also the possibility that the NSA could be obtaining Google customer data without Google's knowledge. Evidence of that, however, has yet to be demonstrated.
Google's Transparency Report includes data on government information requests related to criminal investigations. But the company provides only limited disclosure about government information requests under national security laws, specifically the receipt of National Security Letters. In other words, Google's Transparency Report isn't entirely transparent.
Google however clearly wants to reassure users that it isn't just rolling over. "I'm not sure what the details of this PRISM program are, but I can tell you that the only way in which Google reveals information about users are when we receive lawful, specific orders about individuals -- things like search warrants," said Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger in a post.