Administration Offers Limited Picture Of Controversial Web Surveillance Effort

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By Alexei Alexis  

The Obama administration has released limited details about a controversial internet surveillance program designed to “thwart terrorist and cyber attacks.”

Under the program, known as PRISM, electronic communication service providers supply “targeted” information to the U.S. government as legally required to do so, according to a June 8 “fact sheet” from the administration.

In addition, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a June 8 statement that the administration's surveillance activities are “lawful and conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress.”

The purpose of the activities “is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber attacks against the United States and its allies,” he added.

Clapper said he was declassifying certain details about the program “in hope that it will help dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published.” However, he said the administration's ability to discuss the program is limited because of the need to protect intelligence sources and methods.

The program, which was disclosed in a recent news report, operates under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), with court supervision, according to the administration's fact sheet. The law facilitates the targeted acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets located outside the United States, the document states.

Leading Web Companies Linked to Effort

According to news reports, several leading internet companies participating in the PRISM program have given the National Security Agency and FBI unfettered access to web users' personal data. However, Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc., and other companies identified as program participants have pushed back against the reports.

“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis,” Microsoft said in an emailed statement. “In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data, we don't participate in it.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company had never even heard of PRISM until it was recently reported in the news.

“Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers,” he said in a recent statement posted on the company's website.

Privacy Advocates Outraged

News of the effort has prompted strong objections from privacy groups and led to calls for congressional hearings and legislative action.

“Legislation is absolutely needed,” American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson told BNA. “President Obama was clear that he will continue this program and the courts have apparently bought into this regime. I don't see how it will be curtailed, short of Congress asserting itself.”

The Obama administration is also under fire over recent reports that it has engaged in sweeping phone surveillance, also in the name of national security. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said that his panel will be taking a close look at the details of the matter and will investigate whether the law needs to be changed.

Obama defended the administration's surveillance efforts June 7, saying that Congress has been fully briefed about them. He also said that he welcomed a privacy debate over the issue.