In the months and early years after 9/11, FBI agents began visiting Microsoft Corp. more often than before, with court orders demanding information on customers.
Around the world, governments were tracking the email and Internet addresses used by suspected terrorists. Often, those trails led to Microsoft, the world’s largest software company and, at the time, largest email provider.
The agents wanted email archives and account information. Engineers compiled the data and delivered it to the government.
One former Microsoft employee recalls that so much information was changing hands that the engineers were concerned about whether the company should be cooperating with the government.
Inside Microsoft, some called it “Hoovering”, after J. Edgar Hoover, who gathered dirt on countless Americans.
This frenzied process was the forerunner to Prism, the recently revealed highly classified National Security Agency program that seizes records from Internet companies.
The revelation of Prism this month by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers has touched off another round in the decade-long debate over what limits to impose on government eavesdropping, which the Obama administration says is essential to keep the nation safe.
But the Associated Press reports that interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.
It has been known for years that the NSA snatches data as it passes through the Internet’s fiber optic cables and then routes it to the NSA for analysis. This program provides the government with names, addresses, conversation histories and entire archives of email inboxes.
The AP interviews, along with public statements and documents, show two vital components to Prism’s success.
The first is how the government works closely with the companies that keep people connected to each other around the world. That componet has attracted the most attention so far.
The second one is how Prism fits into a larger U.S. wiretapping program that has been in place for years.
Since at least the early 1970s, the NSA has been tapping foreign cable. But tapping internet data gives the NSA access to both foreigners and Americans.
In 2007 the Bush administration endorsed the Protect America Act, a new law which allowed the wiretapping to continue without changes.
Though Barack Obama voted against it, since becoming president he has kept the surveillance intact.
“You can’t expect a president to not use a legal tool that Congress has given him to protect the country,” said Jason Weinstein, the former head of the Justice Department’s cybercrime and intellectual property section. “So, Congress has given him the tool. The president’s using it. And the courts are saying ‘The way you’re using it is OK.’ That’s checks and balances at work.”
The Associated Press reports that Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert, said it doesn’t really matter how Prism works, technically. Just assume the government collects everything, he said.
He said it doesn’t matter what the government and the companies say, either. It’s spycraft, after all.
“Everyone is playing word games,” he said. “No one is telling the truth.” Image/AP