James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, has strongly defended government surveillance programmes after revelations of phone records being collected and internet servers being tapped.
Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper 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 issued a strong-worded statement late on Thursday, after the UK’s Guardian newspapersaid 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 James R. 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”.
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.
Prism reportedly does not collect user data, but is able to pull out material that matches a set of search terms.
James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, has strongly defended government surveillance programmes after revelations of phone records being collected and internet servers being tapped
James 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.
James Clapper said the programme, under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was recently reauthorized by Congress after hearings and debate.
“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.
Microsoft said in a statement 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.
A senior congressman, House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers, told reporters that collecting Americans’ phone records was legal, authorized 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.
According to Google’s Transparency Report, governments around the world made nearly 21,000 requests for access to its data in the first six months of 2012.
Google’s Transparency Report indicates government surveillance of online lives is rising sharply.
The US government made the most demands, asking for details 7,969 times in the first six months of 2012.
Turkey topped the list for requests to remove content.
Google, in common with other technology and communication companies, regularly receives requests from government agencies and courts around the world to have access to content.
It has been publishing its Transparency Report twice a year since 2009 and has seen a steady rise in government demands for data. In its first report in 2009, it received 12,539 requests. The latest figure stands at 20,939.
“This is the sixth time we’ve released this data, and one trend has become clear: government surveillance is on the rise,” Google said in a blog post.
The report acts as a bellwether for government behavior around the world, said a Google spokeswoman.
“It reflects laws on the ground. For example in Turkey there are specific laws about defaming public figures whereas in Germany we get requests to remove neo-Nazi content,” she said.
“And in Brazil we get a lot of requests to remove content during elections because there is a law banning parodies of candidates.
“We hope that the report will shed light on how governments interact with online services and how laws are reflected in online behavior,” she added.
According to Google’s Transparency Report, governments around the world made nearly 21,000 requests for access to its data in the first six months of 2012
The US has consistently topped the charts for data requests. France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are also in the top 10.
In France and Germany it complied with fewer than half of all requests. In the UK it complied with 64% of requests and 90% of requests from the US.
Google said the top three reasons cited by government for content removal were defamation, privacy and security.
Worldwide authorities made 1,789 requests for Google to remove content, up from 1,048 requests for the last six months of 2011.
In the period from January to June, Turkey made 501 requests for content removal.
These included 148 requests related to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the first president of Turkey, the current government, national identity and values.
Others included claims of pornography, hate speech and copyright.
Google has its own criteria for whether it will remove content – the request must be specific, relate to a specific web address and have come from a relevant authority.
Anonymous hacking group is alleged to have disrupted access to the UK Home Office website after an apparent cyber attack in protest against government surveillance plans.
A message on the Home Office website said the page was currently unavailable “due to a high volume of traffic”, suggesting a denial of service attack had been perpetrated.
A message on Twitter claiming to be from Anonymous, a loosely organized group of hackers who promote access to free speech, information and transparency, said the action was “for [the Home Office’s] draconian surveillance proposals”.
However, another message claimed it was over extradition rules from the UK to the U.S.
One tweet claiming to be from Anonymous said: “You should not give UK citizens to foreign countries without evidence. If an offence happened in the UK, so should the trial.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are aware of some reports that the Home Office website may be the subject of an online protest. We have put all potential measures in place and will be monitoring the situation very closely.”
Anonymous hacking group is alleged to have disrupted access to the UK Home Office website
The Home Office added that if a successful denial of service attempt did occur, it would “liaise with the technical team and update as necessary”.
A denial of service attack prevents a website from functioning properly, sometimes by swamping it with more traffic than it can handle. Such an action was believed to have been responsible for crashing the Home Office site.
The apparent attack came after it emerged last week that the British government was planning a massive expansion of its powers to monitor the email exchanges and website visits of every person in the UK.
Under legislation expected in next month’s Queen’s Speech, internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ – the government’s electronic “listening” agency – to examine “on demand” any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed, in “real time” without a warrant.
Ministers have faced a backlash over the plans, with senior MPs from both coalition parties, as well as civil liberties groups, lining up to denounce it.
Just days ago China felt the effects of Anonymous after the hacking group claimed it had brought down several government websites in a protest against the country’s internet restrictions.
The sites included government bureaus in several Chinese cities, including Chengdu, a provincial capital in southwest China.
In a message left on one of the sites the hackers said they did not agree with blocking information from the public.
Part of it read in English: “Dear Chinese government, you are in infallible, today websites are hacked, tomorrow it will be your vile regime that will fall.”
Included in the message were instructions for Chinese people on how to get around the restrictions imposed by their government.
Chinese officials block citizens from seeing social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and information on politically sensitive topics.