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 624.

    The entire Internet seems to be geared for destroying privacy and keeping records forever!

    George Orwells 1984 is here now and the majority of people seem to welcome it, or at least cooperate fully with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 623.

    To be honest and true to all, is it not in most western country's constitution to protect from foreign and domestic, liberty is a bumpy road. If you are not doing anything wrong or illegal, You have nothing to fear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 622.

    Not only should people in the U.S. be outraged, people in the U.K. should be as well, after all, the information gathered by the U.S. gov is shared with the U.K. gov among others and all of this "done" on our behalf.
    The reality is the odds of an American being killed by a terrorist attack is 1 in 20,000,000 (Harvard Univ) the odds for a U.K. citizen is similar.
    So what are we so afraid of?

  • rate this

    Comment number 621.

    Get it straight "we demand closer scrutiny of people who may want to do harm"!
    But WHO decides what constitutes "wants to do harm". Someone who just plain disagrees with "the powers that be" What do you have to do to warrant "closer scrutiny"? What are the guidelines? Are there any guidelines?

  • rate this

    Comment number 620.

    What do you think GCHQ does?
    GCHQ monitors communications around the world and within the UK, they do not gather data on millions of UK citizens just for the power it gives them. Theresa May might want the same here with her snooping charter, but right now we pick a suspect, monitor them, gather data, and then act. The US seems to be assuming their entire population are suspects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 619.

    I must say I am shock how the US government treats their citizens liberty. They just act in their own will, no shame, no remorse, and no regret.

    It looks like a country going backwards to become Soviet Union.

  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    America's top intelligence official : we cant said china hacker did it, we dont do it. people will believe it because they are idiot

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    So they do it to everybody, not just the press. Why do we put up with this? Oh I know why, it's because I'm not doing anything wrong, so what will they find... nothing. Not a good reason to put up with lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    It doesn't surprise me much & possibly there are good reasons for it, but it would have been interesting to see the reactions if this had been revealed during a GOP administration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 615.

    As an outsider looking in, the USA always promotes itself as a free and righteous country. An ardent counterbalance to the old totalitarian socialist regimes in the Soviet Union.

    In reality, the USA appears to be run by a cabal of paranoid, authoritarian tyrants. When these people say it's a free country, they mean some people [them] are "more free" than others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 614.

    Surprised by the "PRISM does not spy on US citizens" emphasis in the above. So does that make it okay that the NSA spys on UK citizens?

    If companies like Apple and Google are setting up separate holding companies in Ireland for tax purposes, those companies are under EU law, so can they please refuse requests from the US government for EU citizen data? Ta.

  • rate this

    Comment number 613.

    590. Wandalust1956
    "on one hand...and at the same time beat our chests if someone wants to peek at our emails."

    Get it straight "we demand closer scrutiny of people who may want to do harm"! But because we have blanketed our system with lawyers, they would call it stereotyping"!
    "American" liberties are forever being compromised because of them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 612.

    When Pony Express started, would we of used it, if "we the people" were told each communication would be searched by the US Gov't. to record the length of it, who it was from, and to; in order to prevent terror in the US? No one would of used Pony Express because this US Gov't. interaction would be 'worse terror than Brits imposed'. New World "ORDER" US$$ for even foreign big business hacking Ops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 611.

    There's a funny irony here. The right wing swivel eyed types, who spend all their days on the web paranoidly moaning about "jihads" and "holy wars" will probably be picked up by these scans.

    You couldn't make it up !

  • rate this

    Comment number 610.

    There are just too many agencies gathering information, and images (CCTV) as well) it has become obsessive. This includes names like Google, however handy things like googlemaps are, trying to get taken off there system is not an easy task.

  • rate this

    Comment number 609.

    The USA has been planning this for a while, and they have just opened their new government data facility to create files on millions of innocent people. There is NO reason for this other than tyrannical control.


    The real reason is more likely to be "because we can".
    Whether they are remotely capable of using all the data is a moot point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 608.

    land of the free - free to do as you are told

  • rate this

    Comment number 607.

    Speaking of suspicious government activities...

  • rate this

    Comment number 606.

    Terrorists, paedophiles and pirates - whenever a government invokes any of those individually or in combination, you know - they are lying.

    They are scared brainless of common people knowing what they are up to and that's why they spy on us using paedo-pirato-terrorgeddon as an excuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 605.

    Firstly, because the BBC are so selective on what we can comment on, " Austerity to last until 2020......yeah right! 2015 more like it. Election all out for 5.

    Spying.....It is not new, it;s been happening for donkeys years, why all of sudden this should be a shock? What do you think GCHQ does?


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