New info on NSA email surveillance, plus other spying and privacy news

The U.S. government’s collection of online communications data under the recently revealed Prism program was supposedly focused on foreign terrorism suspects. But the Guardian has a new report about a different program. Under Stellar Wind, the NSA began collecting Americans’ email metadata (including sender and receiver/s)  in bulk after the Sept. 11 attacks — with varying degrees of court oversight, including none — and the practice continued for a decade until it was discontinued in 2011.

Key points the Guardian makes:  NSA collection of online communications data continues today to some degree, as first reported by the Guardian and the Washington Post. And although the practices have had occasional setbacks, government agencies have found ways to keep them running under different guises and legal frameworks.

(The Merc’s Jeremy Owens has more, including links to the secret documents the Guardian obtained.)

In other news related to privacy and/or government surveillance and/or collection of personal data:

• Twitter CEO Dick Costolo on Wednesday sidestepped questions about whether Twitter is part of the Prism program, according to the Washington Post. At the American Society of News Editors meeting, Costolo said only that the San Francisco-based microblogging service pushes back on government requests, but that “we are not petulant about our response. We have a principled stance, and we try not to cross that line.” Tech companies that have reportedly participated in Prism include Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo.

• Speaking of Microsoft, it has also challenged the government’s ban on disclosing information about NSA data requests, according to a filing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released Wednesday. A couple of weeks ago, Google became the first of the companies mentioned above to petition the FISA court for permission to disclose the number of requests it receives under the Prism program. Both Microsoft and Google cite First Amendment rights to free speech in their petitions.

The tech companies released numbers of law-enforcement and government data requests soon after the surveillance program was revealed, but they are not allowed to specify how many of those are from the NSA. Google, which regularly releases a twice-a-year Transparency Report and has also released information about requests it receives from the FBI, did not release a separate report after the Prism revelation.

• Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued the FBI over access to records about the agency’s planned use of facial recognition. The San Francisco-based advocacy group said Wednesday that it submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI last year, and it has asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to enforce the requests. The FBI is scheduled to add facial recognition to its growing biometrics database in 2014. (A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about state-level law enforcement use of facial recognition databases.)


Photo of NSA building in Maryland from Associated Press archives


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  • Chuck Karish

    PRISM is a computer program, not a surveillance project. It’s impossible for tech companies to participate in it.

    Verizon is the only company that is known to have given the NSA free access to user metadata for analysis by PRISM. It’s not constructive to repeat unsupported charges that other companies have done so.

  • Levi Sumagaysay

    The companies themselves have admitted to complying with Prism when required by a court.