NSA Invaded Google and Yahoo Global Data Centers to Access Hundreds of Millions of Accounts

Friday, November 01, 2013
NSA anti-Google slide

Having the “front-door” cooperation of Internet giants Google and Yahoo to access millions of individuals’ email accounts under legal authority wasn’t enough for the National Security Agency (NSA), according to the latest discovery about the spy agency’s clandestine activities. No, the NSA has also been tapping into the companies’ fiber-optics cables overseas—without their knowledge or approval—to gather even more volumes of personal communications, including those of Americans.


Using information provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden and interviews with “knowledgeable” officials, The Washington Post reported that the NSA has operated a project called MUSCULAR that involves infiltrating Google’s and Yahoo’s network cables running between their data centers. The effort has also involved Britain’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).


“By tapping those links, the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans,” the Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani wrote. “NSA does not keep everything it collects, but it keeps a lot.”


A classified document revealed that in one 30-day period from early December 2012 to early January 2013, the NSA “processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records—including ‘metadata,’ which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video,” Gellman and Soltani wrote.


MUSCULAR has been essentially a “backdoor” into Google’s and Yahoo’s systems, utilized simultaneously while the companies cooperated under another program, PRISM, which had them turning over information under orders from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court (FISA) to the NSA.


It is beneficial to NSA to sweep up this data from outside of U.S. territory. “Intercepting communications overseas has clear advantages for the NSA, with looser restrictions and less oversight,” wrote Gellman and Soltani. “Such large-scale collection of Internet content would be illegal in the United States.”


Former NSA chief analyst John Schindler believes that the agency is using Executive Order 12333 as cover for this activity because. Under this Order, “the rules are less restrictive…than they are under FISA,” he told the Post. He said it is the result of the agency’s lawyers “figuring out how to stay within the law and maximize collection by exploiting every loophole.”


While Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-California) has acknowledged that Congress conducts little oversight of Order 12333, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement denying that such executive authority was being used to “get around the [FISA-imposed] limitations.” The NSA released a similar statement.


Officials from both Google and Yahoo told the newspaper that they had no prior knowledge of MUSCULAR, and that they objected to the secret tapping of their network cables. It was reported that both companies had paid for ultra-secure cables which, until recently, they believed would be immune from this kind of intrusion.


Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement that the company has “long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping” and has not provided the government with access to its systems.


“We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform,” he said.


A Yahoo spokeswoman told the Post: “We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

NSA Infiltrates Links to Yahoo, Google Data Centers Worldwide, Snowden Documents Say (by Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, Washington Post)

N.S.A. Said to Tap Google and Yahoo Abroad (by Charlie Savage, Claire Cain Miller and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times)

NSA Bypasses U.S. Restrictions to Gather Americans’ Contact Lists and First Lines of Content (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NSA and FBI Secretly Mining Data from Internet Service Providers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)      


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