US data mining system technical details murky

Jun 08, 2013 by Rob Lever
A Google logo is seen on a monitor at the company's annual developer conference in San Francisco on June 28, 2012. The US government's vast online data collection system unveiled this week could tap into companies like Google and Facebook without the knowledge of top executives, experts say.

The US government's vast online data collection system revealed this week could tap into companies like Google and Facebook without the knowledge of top executives, experts said.

The so-called PRISM program could be so secret that only a small number of computer network administrators and company lawyers may have been aware of it, according to technical and legal specialists.

Still, many aspects of the program remain murky, according to people who follow issues related to online privacy and security.

The government has acknowledged tapping into servers of nine Internet giants—including Apple, , , Microsoft and —even though the companies deny giving direct "backdoor" access.

The Washington Post and The Guardian reported the system dates back to 2007.

"There is something deeply mysterious about this," said Joseph Hall, senior technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights activist group. "We've been wracking our brains all night."

The program run by the top-secret with the FBI "could be doing things in ways the companies wouldn't know," Hall said.

Hall noted that many questions are unanswered, such as how the program handles .

Johannes Ullrich, chief research officer for the SANS Institute computer research center, said it would be technically possible to set up a "master account" to give government spies access but that many in the companies might be kept in the dark.

"Given the secrecy of these systems, I am not surprised that only few inside the respective organizations have knowledge about the access," Ullrich told AFP.

Ullrich said that "the exact nature of the backdoor is still not known" but that it would be hard to "filter" the data to target only non-US users, as the government insists is the case.

"It's not realistic to filter non-US data" in the collection process, he said, adding that the system must later exclude non- about Americans.

Ullrich said the program raises questions about the vulnerability of the companies if a so-called "backdoor" has been established.

"Not just the organization authorized to use the backdoor has access to the data, but anybody who penetrated that organization," he said.

"So the Chinese probably have access to the data as well."

Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science professor who specializes in data security, said the denials "seem quite broad and are hard to square with the supposed capabilities of PRISM."

Halderman said it is possible that "the gag orders were so restrictive that senior management was not told... arguably only a small group of attorneys and engineers would need to know in order to comply with a sweeping access request."

Sascha Meinrath, who heads the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said companies are "trying to elide the truth" about their cooperation.

"I expect that when it comes to light, we will find a number of boxes at the data centers of these companies," he said.

"You need that because the amount of data is so huge that you have to have an infrastructure in place."

Facebook's logo is played on a laptop screen in Manila on May 15, 2012. The US government's vast online data collection system unveiled this week could tap into companies like Google and Facebook without the knowledge of top executives, experts say.

Although it is possible to tap into services remotely, Meinrath said this would be "a massive security risk" that could allow access from hackers or others.

Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said he sees no contradiction between the public statement of the companies and the likely cooperation.

"What strikes the reader as a denial is not a denial," Rotenberg said.

"Google did not say they were not disclosing information to the NSA. They said they did not provide a backdoor."

Rotenberg, whose organization has sued unsuccessfully to get details of what was reported to be a cooperation agreement between Google and the NSA, said data orders might be known only by the legal staff and a technical expert.

"Much of this authority to disclose information is subject to the gag provisions which prevent companies from disclosing the existence of the obligation," he said.

"The spokespeople may be speaking accurately about what they know but it might not be an accurate statement. They could be punished for acknowledging it."

EPIC attorney Ginger McCall said the program appeared to be designed "to circumvent the need for a court order," and that as a result, "there is a strong possibility it was illegal."

But companies have "an incentive not to be forthright" because "if they were cooperating, there is a potential for liability," she noted.

Bruce Schneier, an author of books on computer security who is the chief security technology officer at BT, said the latest revelations are only providing a small amount of information on government snooping.

"All we have is shadows of information," he said. "We are finally learning some things. We need more whistleblowers."

Explore further: Google, Facebook condemn online spying

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Google, Facebook condemn online spying

Jun 08, 2013

Google chief Larry Page and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg condemned online spying Friday and called for governments to be more revealing about snooping on the Internet.

Push for US Internet 'wiretap' law faces tough road

Jun 02, 2013

The FBI is stepping up its effort to get broader authority to put "wiretaps" on the Internet to catch criminals and terrorists. But the move is drawing fire from civil liberties groups, technology firms and others who claim ...

But wait, there's more: A US spying Q&A

Jun 07, 2013

Wait, there's more? Yes, this was the week that America's intelligence secrets spilled out: Classified court orders. Top secret Power Point slides. Something called PRISM. It's pretty important stuff, once ...

New reports allege vast US Internet spying sweep

Jun 07, 2013

US spies are secretly tapping into servers of nine Internet giants including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google in a vast anti-terror sweep targeting foreigners, explosive reports said Thursday.

Recommended for you

LinkedIn membership hits 300 million

Apr 18, 2014

The career-focused social network LinkedIn announced Friday it has 300 million members, with more than half the total outside the United States.

Researchers uncover likely creator of Bitcoin

Apr 18, 2014

The primary author of the celebrated Bitcoin paper, and therefore probable creator of Bitcoin, is most likely Nick Szabo, a blogger and former George Washington University law professor, according to students ...

White House updating online privacy policy

Apr 18, 2014

A new Obama administration privacy policy out Friday explains how the government will gather the user data of online visitors to, mobile apps and social media sites. It also clarifies that ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 08, 2013
Netizens condemn G00gle, deFacedbook online spying. If the bottom can't be seen for the murky details then hang your clothes on the hickory limb, but don't go near the water.

Safety is the new Liberty, and recklessness is the new Freedom, and Anony Mouse is the new John Handcock.
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 08, 2013
Oh, "murky". For a moment there I thought it read 'sleazy'.
3.4 / 5 (5) Jun 08, 2013
This is nothing more than the total Information Awareness program started by the Corrupt Republican, Ronald Reagan and promoted by John Poindexter the Iran Contra criminal.


Poindexter was convicted on April 7, 1990 of five counts of lying to Congress and obstructing the Congressional investigation into the Reagan Administration's covert arms sales to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to insurgents fighting the Marxist Government in Nicaragua, later known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The convictions were reversed in 1991 on appeal.

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

( —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...