The Washington Post has the latest revelation, based on documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, concerning surveillance by the NSA. The revelations affect individuals’ privacy and civil liberties. The Post reports:
The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials.
By tapping those links, the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from among hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans. The NSA does not keep everything it collects, but it keeps a lot.
According to a top secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — ranging from “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, to content such as text, audio and video.
The NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency’s British counterpart, GCHQ. […]
The infiltration is especially striking because the NSA, under a separate program known as PRISM, has front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a court-approved process. […]
White House officials and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, declined to confirm, deny or explain why the agency infiltrates Google and Yahoo networks overseas. […]
The operation to infiltrate data links exploits a fundamental weakness in systems architecture. To guard against data loss and system slowdowns, Google and Yahoo maintain fortress-like data centers across four continents and connect them with thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable. These globe-spanning networks, representing billions of dollars of investment, are known as “clouds” because data moves seamlessly around them.
In order for the data centers to operate effectively, they synchronize high volumes of information about account holders. Yahoo’s internal network, for example, sometimes transmits entire e-mail archives — years of messages and attachments — from one data center to another.
Tapping the Google and Yahoo clouds allows the NSA to intercept communications in real time and to take “a retrospective look at target activity,” according to one internal NSA document.
In order to obtain free access to data center traffic, the NSA had to circumvent gold standard security measures. Google “goes to great lengths to protect the data and intellectual property in these centers,” according to one of the company’s blog posts, with tightly audited access controls, heat sensitive cameras, round-the-clock guards and biometric verification of identities.