Report: NSA broke into Yahoo, Google data centers (Update 2)

Oct 30, 2013 by Lolita C. Baldor
This undated photo provided by Google shows a Google data center in Hamina, Finland. The Washington Post is reporting Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, that the National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world. The Post cites documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with officials. (AP Photo/Google)

The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, a newspaper reported, citing documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

A secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, indicates that NSA sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency's Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

In the last 30 days, field collectors had processed and sent back more than 180 million new records—ranging from "metadata," which would indicate who sent or received emails and when, to content such as text, audio and video, the Post reported Wednesday on its website.

The latest revelations were met with outrage from Google, and triggered legal questions, including whether the NSA may be violating federal wiretap laws.

"Although there's a diminished standard of legal protection for interception that occurs overseas, the fact that it was directed apparently to Google's cloud and Yahoo's cloud, and that there was no legal order as best we can tell to permit the interception, there is a good argument to make that the NSA has engaged in unlawful surveillance," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center. The reference to 'clouds' refers to sites where the companies collect data.

The new details about the NSA's access to Yahoo and Google data centers around the world come at a time when Congress is reconsidering the government's collection practices and authority, and as European governments are responding angrily to revelations that the NSA collected data on millions of communications in their countries. Details about the government's programs have been trickling out since Snowden shared documents with the Post and Guardian newspaper in June.

The NSA's principal tool to exploit the Google and Yahoo data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency's British counterpart, GCHQ. The Post said NSA and GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information between the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.

The NSA has a separate data-gathering program, called PRISM, which uses a court order to compel Yahoo, Google and other Internet companies to provide certain data. It allows the NSA to reach into the companies' data streams and grab emails, video chats, pictures and more. U.S. officials have said the program is narrowly focused on foreign targets, and technology companies say they turn over information only if required by court order.

In an interview with Bloomberg News Wednesday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked if the NSA has infiltrated Yahoo and Google databases, as detailed in the Post story.

"Not to my knowledge," said Alexander. "We are not authorized to go into a U.S. company's servers and take data. We'd have to go through a court process for doing that."

It was not clear, however, whether Alexander had any immediate knowledge of the latest disclosure in the Post report. Instead, he appeared to speak more about the PRISM program and its legal parameters.

In a separate statement, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said NSA has "multiple authorities" to accomplish its mission, and she said "the assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons' data from this type of collection is also not true."

The GCHQ had no comment on the matter.

The Post said the NSA was breaking into data centers worldwide. The NSA has far looser restrictions on what it can collect outside the United States on foreigners.

David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer said the company has "long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping."

"We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems," said Drummond. "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform."

Google, which is known for its data security, noted that it has been trying to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links.

Yahoo spokeswoman Sarah Meron said there are strict controls in place to protect the security of the company's data centers. "We have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency," she said, adding that it is too early to speculate on whether legal action would be taken.

The MUSCULAR project documents state that this collection from Yahoo and Google has led to key intelligence leads, the Post said.

Congress members and international leaders have become increasingly angry about the NSA's data collection, as more information about the programs leak out.

Alexander told lawmakers that the U.S. did not collect European records, and instead the U.S. was given data by NATO partners as part of a program to protect military interests.

More broadly, Alexander on Wednesday defended the overall NSA effort to monitor communications. And he said that as Congress considers proposals to scale back the data collection or provide more transparency to some of the programs, it's his job to lay out the resulting terrorism risks.

"I'm concerned that we give information out that impacts our ability to stop terrorist attacks. That's what most of these programs are aimed to do," Alexander said. "I believe if you look at this and you go back through everything, none of this shows that NSA is doing something illegal or that it's not been asked to do."

Pointing to thousands of terror attacks around the world, he said the U.S. has been spared much of that violence because of such programs.

"It's because you have great people in the military and the intelligence community doing everything they can with law enforcement to protect this country," he said. "But they need tools to do it. If we take away the tools, we increase the risk."

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User comments : 14

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PoppaJ
3 / 5 (8) Oct 30, 2013
This is why you cannot give this sort of power to the government. Welcome to the police state.
DonGateley
1 / 5 (4) Oct 30, 2013
Who, I wonder, didn't see this coming. More to follow. Nothing you do anywhere you do it is private any longer. Lacking a knee jerk, the problem I have is deciding whether or not it is appropriate given the state of personal destructive power. More will follow on that level too.

I find a startling lack of consideration of that in this debate. I guess it's lumped into the rubric "terrorism" but it really needs to be broken out and strongly represented for what it is without all the emotional and political baggage. It's not who can do it but what can be done and the ease of doing it that matters. Not that I believe that any conceivable surveillance technology can ultimately prevent the worst of it, but a full effort seems to me to be mandatory.
LarryD
not rated yet Oct 31, 2013
This is why you cannot give this sort of power to the government. Welcome to the police state.

In a police state no one is trustworthy but I don't think we are quite there...yet!
Two movies stick in my mind, 'The Fourth Protocol' and 'The Sum of All our Fears'. Fortunately the former, as far as I know, didn't happen and the 'powers' settled down. The latter movie isn't all that different being about power and greed but it does take the final step. The other difference is that the latter clearly lays the blame on those who want to make millions...so not surprising that there is no privacy these days.
No good looking in my bank account chaps, checking my email or mobile phone...real boring!
VendicarE
3 / 5 (2) Oct 31, 2013
Forbid the state from keeping secrets from it's citizens and all of these gubderment problems vanish.

Gorbachev was right.
krundoloss
1 / 5 (5) Oct 31, 2013
It seems to me that any terrorist would use encrypted or coded communication, why monitor regular people's Email? In regards to "Privacy", well, privacy is gone. Unless you are in a room with your cell phone off, what you say can be monitored. I agree that the NSA needs to stop trying to gather every email on the planet, but realistically, they cannot be stopped. If you stop them then someone else will do it. On that same note, I refuse to use facebook because potential employers research your profiles.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Oct 31, 2013
In a police state no one is trustworthy but I don't think we are quite there...yet!

Well, if you go by the numbers of people employed in the US spying departments then the US has already surpassed former east germany as to the percentage of the populace that is actively involved (and also in the percentage of people of the rest of the populace on whom information was gathered).

Man...if you beat east germany at something like that (and also boast the highest prison population in the world) there's really no way you CANNOT call it a police state anymore. (Unless you have a good PR machine that keeps telling its own people how 'free' they are compared to everyone else...and the US arguably has that. But PR does not reality make.)

Modernmystic
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 31, 2013
I hope I never hear a one sided argument about the government's lack of respect for civil liberties. This isn't a "Republican" problem or a "Democrat" problem, this kind of completely off the rails behavior from these agencies is an AMERICAN problem....period.

We should fire everyone at the top and start over, or abolish entire agencies completely at this point.
aroc91
5 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2013
but realistically, they cannot be stopped


That's enabler talk if I've ever seen it. Of course they can. It's not like they have authority over the rest of the government.
LarryD
not rated yet Oct 31, 2013
antialias_physorg, agreed but them I'm British. As you might appreciate the UK is a much more compacted environment the USA and there aren't many wide open spaces to retreat to. With many places overcrowded it's difficult to defend the public properly. Security and spying are both necessary to combat 'terrorists' but are also tools for abuse.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2013
Security and spying are both necessary to combat 'terrorists' but are also tools for abuse.

There's quite a number of studies on whether cameras make anything safer - and the results seem to be: cameras don't prevent anything at all (they may help later on in identification - but that's of very limited use. Especially in a day and age where we have suicide bombers).
There is a cost-to-gain ratio we have to look at here: and the nonexistent gain in safety is offset by a massive cost to privacy. That's not a good deal - and arguably a huge risk for future political developments.

The money would be better invested in improving relations with nations/groups that seem to feel they are being treated unfairly.

A political group (whether they call themselves democratic or not is immaterial) that has access to that material while their opponents don't can keep themsleves in power indefinitely.
eHofmann
not rated yet Nov 01, 2013
... U.S. officials have said the program is narrowly focused on foreign targetsU.S. officials have said the program is narrowly focused on foreign targets ...

... chee, that just makes me feel that much better ... it's not them it's us ...
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (6) Nov 01, 2013
Frankly, I'm not convinced of the report. We don't know where it came from, but perhaps from Snowden. But it may have been planted by the NSA and Google, because Eric Schmdit (being a huge Obama supporter, helper of the Obama campaign website, and likely source of NSA technology to spy on us) is now finding his business affected because of his close cooperation with the Obama administration.

Google wants to make it look like they were forced to cooperate with the NSA.

On the other hand, perhaps this is an attempt by Greenwald to setup Obama and the NSA by releasing a false report, with a plan to reveal the real events later. The plan being to allow Google and NSA to agree with the lies, only to show they are lying again some time later with more revelations.

Neither looks good regarding Google, the NSA, and unconstitutional government snooping where companies are forced to keep quiet about their cooperation with US spys.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (5) Nov 01, 2013
Google wants to make it look like they were forced to cooperate with the NSA.


Does it matter? Are we saying their motives matter at this point? If it was done, AND if we want to be consistent with our general principles and values as a nation then it seems clear to me that someone should go to jail, have their power curtailed, have their power taken away entirely, or all of the above or some combination of the above.

The plan being to allow Google and NSA to agree with the lies, only to show they are lying again some time later with more revelations.


It's possible, however given the NSA's recent track record I think it stretches credulity to think they DIDN'T do this rather than the reverse.

Neither looks good regarding Google, the NSA, and unconstitutional government snooping where companies are forced to keep quiet about their cooperation with US spys.


Agreed there.
krundoloss
1 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2013
but realistically, they cannot be stopped


That's enabler talk if I've ever seen it. Of course they can. It's not like they have authority over the rest of the government.


Please, tell me what a regular person can do to influence the US government and their secret spying programs. Anything at all, just tell me. Write an email to my congressman? Create a terrorist organization? What can be done? I am convinced that the American people have become completely complacent and will not do anything but have discussions over dinner and shake their head saying "Man, it shouldn't be that way".