WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Security Agency has secretly
broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google
data centers around the world, the Washington Post reported Wednesday,
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, Md., headquarters. 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 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
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.
But Google said the company has "long been concerned about the possibility
of this kind of snooping." The statement said Google is "troubled by
allegations of the government intercepting traffic between our data
centers, and we are not aware of this activity."
Google, which is known for its data security, noted that it has been
trying to extend encryption across more and more Google services and
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. A delegation from the European Union Parliament came to
Washington this week to conduct intense talks about reported U.S. spying
on allied leaders, including the collection of phone records. And a German
delegation met with U.S. officials over allegations that the NSA was
monitoring Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.
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.
Congress members, however, are working on plans that would put limits data
collection. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, has called for a "total review of all intelligence
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."