Reports: NSA gets phone records from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, as well as data from Apple, Google and others

The National Security Agency is working with Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ), AT&T (NYSE:T) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) to collect data about U.S. citizens' telephone calls, according to multiple reports. However, government officials and lawmakers say the program is lawful and is reviewed by Congress and the courts.

According to reports in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed sources familiar with the matter, Sprint and AT&T are, along with Verizon, cooperating on the seven-year-old program to collect telephone "meta data," including the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation. The companies declined to comment or say if they had received secret court orders from the government, as the Guardian disclosed that Verizon did. According to the NYT, T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and CenturyLink also declined to say if they had received court orders to turn over such data.

Separately, the Washington Post and the Guardian published reports about another NSA program, called "Prism," which the reports said allows the NSA to get access to Internet-based audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to track potential terrorist threats. The reports said that the NSA works with Silicon Valley and mobile giants such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and others. The companies denied working with the NSA to help the agency mine data.

The revelations were condemned by civil libertarians as examples of the overreach of the surveillance state that has grown since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. However, government officials were at pains to argue that the programs were lawful under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the antiterrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the NYT, the section of the law made it easier for the government to get a secret order to collect business records, as long as they were deemed relevant to a national security investigation.

"Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new,'' said Sen. Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), the Senate majority leader who said the phone-data program has "worked to prevent'' terrorist attacks, according to the Journal.

According to the Journal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the program is lawful and needs to be renewed by Congress every three months.

According to Politico and the NYT, Verizon's general counsel Randy Milch said in an internal memo to company employees that Verizon would be legally obligated to respond to government requests like the court order for telephone metadata the Guardian reported on.

As for the Prism program, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the Prism program is authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was recently renewed by Congress. The Obama administration said that it minimizes the collection and storage of information "incidentally acquired" about Americans and permanent residents.

"It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States," Clapper said. "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."

According to the Post report, the NSA collects data directly from the servers of the Internet companies. However, several of the companies denied this. The Post said a "career intelligence officer" provided the information on the Prism program because of the capabilities of the program and how it was being used. "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," the officer said. The Guardian reported that the United Kingdom's equivalent of the NSA, GCHQ, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same Internet companies through an operation established by the NSA.

However, the companies said they were not helping the NSA mine data. "We have never heard of Prism," Apple said in a statement. "We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."

Google also denied involvement in Prism. "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," the company said. "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."

The Post addressed the discrepancy in its report, after word had spread that the government had direct access to company servers: "It is possible that the conflict between the Prism slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author. In another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing 'collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,' rather than directly to company servers."

For more:
- see this WaPo article
- see this WaPo link
- see this separate WaPo link
- see this Guardian article
- see this NYT article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Politico article
- see this The Next Web article
- see this AllThingsD article
- see this GigaOM article

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