US spy chief Clapper defends Prism and phone surveillance

Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper (April 2013) Mr Clapper said there were "numerous inaccuracies" in the report on internet servers being tapped

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US spy chief James Clapper has strongly defended government surveillance programmes after revelations of phone records being collected and internet servers being tapped.

He said disclosure of a secret court document on phone record collection threatened "irreversible harm".

Revelations of an alleged programme to tap into servers of nine internet firms were "reprehensible", he said.

Internet firms deny giving government agents access to their servers.

The director of US national intelligence said he wanted to reassure Americans that the intelligence community was committed to respecting their civil liberties and privacy.


He issued a strong-worded statement late on Thursday, after the UK's Guardian newspaper said a secret court order had required phone company Verizon to hand over its records to the National Security Agency (NSA) on an "ongoing daily basis".

That report was followed by revelations in both the Washington Post and Guardian that US agencies tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms to track people in a programme known as Prism.

The reports about Prism will raise fresh questions about how far the US government should encroach on citizens' privacy in the interests of national security.

The NSA confirmed that it had been secretly collecting millions of phone records. But Mr Clapper said the "unauthorized disclosure... threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation".

The article omitted "key information" about the use of the records "to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties".

He said reports about Prism contained "numerous inaccuracies". While admitting the government collected communications from internet firms, he said the policy only targets "non-US persons".

'Variety of threats'

Prism was reportedly developed in 2007 out of a programme of domestic surveillance without warrants that was set up by President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

What this highlights is the way we now entrust our data and our privacy almost entirely to American companies, storing it in their "clouds" - vast data centres located in the US.

Prism reportedly does not collect user data, but is able to pull out material that matches a set of search terms.

Mr Clapper said the communications-collection programme was "designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-US persons located outside the United States".

"It cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States," he added.

Mr Clapper said the programme, under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was recently reauthorised by Congress after hearings and debate.

Start Quote

If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it”

End Quote Microsoft statement

"Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," he added.

But while US citizens were not intended to be the targets of surveillance, the Washington Post says large quantities of content from Americans are nevertheless screened in order to track or learn more about the target.

The data gathered through Prism has grown to become a major contributor to the president's daily briefing and accounts for almost one in seven intelligence reports, it adds.

The Washington Post named the nine companies participating in the programme as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

I may have been wiretapped

In 2006 I was a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government over a domestic spying programme. Other plaintiffs include the late Christopher Hitchens, and James Bamford, the author of a book, The Shadow Factory, about the NSA.

The lawsuit stated that NSA officials may have eavesdropped on us illegally - and that the warrantless wiretapping programme should come to a halt. In 2007 an appeals court said that we could not prove that our calls had been monitored. As a result it did not have standing. The suit was dismissed.

-Tara McKelvey

Microsoft said in a statement to the BBC that it only turned over customer data when given a legally binding order, and only complied with orders for specific accounts.

"If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it," Microsoft said.

Meanwhile, Yahoo, Apple and Facebook said they did not give the government direct access to their servers.

In a statement, Google said: "Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."

On Wednesday, it emerged that the NSA was collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans, after the Guardian published a secret order for the Verizon phone company to hand over its records.

What the NSA found out

  • The numbers of both people on the phone call
  • How long the call lasts
  • The time that the call is placed

A senior congressman, House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers, told reporters that collecting Americans' phone records was legal, authorised by Congress and had not been abused by the Obama administration.

He also said it had prevented a "significant" attack on the US "within the past few years", but declined to offer more information.

The order requires Verizon - one of the largest phone companies in the US - to disclose to the NSA the metadata of all calls it processes, both domestic and international, in which at least one party is in the US.

Such metadata includes telephone numbers, calling card numbers, the serial numbers of phones used and the time and duration of calls. It does not include the content of a call or the callers' addresses or financial information.

As surveillance practices come under scrutiny in the US, a new system to monitor phone and internet connections in India is being criticised as "chilling" by New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) enables authorities to follow all online activities, phone calls text messages and social media conversations.

The Indian government said in December 2012 the system would "lawfully intercept internet and telephone services". But HRW says the system by-passes service providers in a country that has no privacy law to protect people from arbitrary intrusions.

In the UK on Wednesday, a committee of MPs criticised a decision to allow Chinese firms such as Huawei to become embedded in British network infrastructure without the knowledge and scrutiny of ministers.

Huawei - which denies close ties with the Chinese state - signed a 2005 telecoms deal with BT to supply equipment for a £10bn major network upgrade.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    Anything that can help catch terrorists and villains is OK by me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    for bad guys
    it's necessary
    all doing the same thing as us doing it

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    More like Clapped Out.....and he should be, slow-hand style.
    What utter bunkum - how in God's name can the self appointed Defenders of the Free World sanction such an infringement of civil liberties....why it's unconstitutional!

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    People thinking "i've done nothing wrong, therefore i've got nothing to hide", what actually constitutes "wrong" can radically change. Jews probably thought they hadn't done anything wrong right up until the Nazi party took power and decided that the definition of wrong was about to change. Criticism of the government now might see you taken off to a camp for political prisoners ten years from now

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    "designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-US persons located outside the United States"
    Says it all. US admit to spying on its allies using PRISM and US law as if it's the only legal system they recognise. Hold on, US refuses to deport US citizens for trial in other countries because it refuses to recognise ANY OTHER legal system. Who're the mugs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    The state needs the surveillance tools to deal on our behalf with very dangerous people. The people need to remain free from the suffocation of an over-bearing state. Where is the right balance in respect of the Internet? There probability isn't one. So I believe we need to be more interested in defining the checks and balances than precisely what gets monitored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    Welcome to totalitarianism.

    Go and watch Terry Gilliam's film Brazil . I thought it was far fetched when I first saw it in 1985 but now - people being tortured to death beacause some civil servant got a typo doesn't seem so far off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    At what point do we resign ourselves to the fact that we seem to be quietly becoming Orwell's Oceania and our Government his Big Brother? In1984 Orwell outlines a country where the economy is fueled partially by a state of perpetual war, where everyone is required to be completely equal and the government has the right to spy on its citizens 24/7 and prosecute them for even their thoughts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    I have something to hide.

    Does that mean I am now a terrorist?

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    It is reported in the Guardian that GCHQ have been tapping into PRISM to spy on us without our knowledge. This is absolutely scandalous and a grave abuse of power and my right to privacy. Such abuse strikes at the very heart of democracy and smacks of George Orwells 1984 Big Brother is watching you. This country is fast becoming a tin pot democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    This, is what you get if you demand to know why "our" police/security services "allow" people who may be extermists to go about their business and then attack a man in the street with machetes. Be careful what you wish for....and "mind how you go"...

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    This has been going on for years ...then the press finds out, blabs, gets a headline and the general public reacts. There are also 100's of thousands of cameras following our every what. Lets get a grip...this is now our reality!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    While I have nothing to hide, and while I recognize that these actions are done ostensibly to keep Americans safe from the coordinated efforts of terrorists and other baddies, recent activities by the US IRS against opposition groups might make me more tan a little concerned to exercise free speech if it's eccentric or against the government status quo. Orwell had the right of it, after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    I'm an American, and I am horrified. I would rather live truly free, risky as that is, than have THIS going on. It's not like this has stopped terrorism, after all. It hasn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    I love how they spin it as 'to get the terrorists' and 'to keep you safe', but they never back this up with evidence.

    Even if access to the data is tightly controlled right now, we have no way of knowing if it will always be the case.

    Americans harp on about their gun rights to protect them from oppressive government. What a joke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    Too few Americans know/care about this issue. How can those who care combat the most militaristic, powerful police state in the world?

    But the sad truth is that politically, Americans are some of the most complacent, indifferent people out there. Until this changes, our government will continue to manipulate us, and more importantly, kill innocent people around the world in our name.

  • Comment number 568.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    Unelected, unseen, powerful eyes peering at our lives...I would vote against any who think this is a good thing. But of course, even though I am an American, that won't happen. But living in Oregon at least I can support the two Democratic Senators from this state who have spoken against this betrayal of trust.
    Hugh Massengill, Eugene Oregon

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    Everybody in the freedom loving world should post on HYS, Facebook, Twitter and all other social media websites, and send email to their local representative the following words -" I am a terrorist". The crooked politicians and non accountable idiots like clapper and his ilk would be overwhelmed and soon get the message.

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    It's high time that all root domains other than country specific ones [eg .uk, .de, .fr] were scrapped, and it became a legal requirement that the sites in a root domain were hosted in that country. Then all access to the site from within that country could be routed solely within that country, and we would know whose law governed transactions in that domain, and who could spy on our traffic.


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