The National Security Agency is gathering Internet users' personal data from the computer servers of at least nine large Web service providers under a top secret program called "Prism," the director of national intelligence said Friday.
"Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect," James R. Clapper said in a statement, adding that the program is "subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress."
Prism is used only to target foreigners overseas, Mr. Clapper said, decrying as "reprehensible" Thurday's leak of a slideshow presentation about the program. He said Prism has helped "to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."
The news follows revelations this week that the NSA is collecting "metadata" — phone numbers, length of call, location of both parties — on every call placed and received by every phone in the U.S.
NSA whistleblowers said the agency has been collecting data about all domestic phone calls since October 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and that the agency has access to the content — the sound of voices on a call or the text of emails — of all Americans' personal communications since at least 2003.
William Binney, a mathematician who retired from the agency when domestic collection began, estimated the NSA has data on as many as 20 trillion emails and phone calls.
The Prism leak suggests that, since 2007, billions of other communications — from video or audio Internet calls, text chats or social media messages — also are being collected.
Several of the nine Internet companies named in the Prism presentation — Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, Google and Facebook — denied being willing partners in the broad-scale data-gathering.
"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," the company said in a statement. "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."
But the presentation about Prism, several slides from which were posted Wednesday by Britain's Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post, states otherwise.
The program has the "assistance of communications providers in the US," reads one slide, and "access is 100% dependent on [Internet Service Provider] provisioning."
Another slide describes the wide variety of personal data available to be searched for by Prism, including email, video and voice chat, photos, Internet phone calls, text chats, file transfers and social networking profiles.
The information is available in real time for surveillance and as a historical archive dating back to when the provider was first added to the system.
According to one slide, the earliest participant appears to have been Microsoft, which provides free Hotmail and other email and instant messaging services. The company was added in September 2007.
The most recent addition was Apple in December, and NSA is looking to add more and more providers every year, boasting of "strong growth."
The NSA presentation, a rare leak from the super-secret surveillance agency, hails the Prism program as "one of the most valuable, unique and productive accesses for NSA."
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