The National Security Agency secretly has been collecting information from hundreds of millions of Google and Yahoo user accounts daily around the world — many of them belonging to Americans, The Washington Post reported
The bombshell report detailing how the NSA broke into the main communications links connecting the Silicon Valley giants' data centers around the world was based on documents from ex-NSA leaker Edward Snowden and interviews with officials, the Post reported.
"It's an arms race," Eric Grosse, vice president for security engineering at Google, told the Post last month, before revelation of the infiltration. He said the company was rushing to encrypt the links between its data centers.
"We see these government agencies as among the most skilled players in this game," Grosse said.
Yahoo has not announced plans to encrypt its data-center links.
The Post account comes in the wake of months of reports
, also based on Snowden's leaks, that have shown the spy agency has routinely tracked patterns in emails and phone calls of Americans.
The Post said a top-secret report dated Jan. 9 noted the NSA's acquisitions directorate sends the enormous cache of records from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency's Fort Meade headquarters.
In the 30 days before that, the report said, collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — including "metadata" that would indicate who sent or received emails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video, the Post reported.
The NSA's principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency's British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, the Post reported.
The NSA and the GCHQ are copying entire data flows through fiber-optic cables carrying information between Google and Yahoo data centers, the Post said.
The Post noted the NSA, under a separate program, already has access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a court-approved process.
The NSA is capable of high-tech spying, but hasn't been known to routinely use it against U.S. companies, the Post noted.
In a statement, the NSA said it is "focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only."
"NSA applies Attorney General-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons — minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention, and dissemination," it told the Post.
Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement 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.
At Yahoo, a spokeswoman said, "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."
The NSA already gathers huge volumes of online communications records by legally compelling U.S. technology companies, including Yahoo and Google, to turn over any data that matches court-approved search terms, under a program called Prism.
That program — first disclosed by the Post and The Guardian newspaper in Britain — is authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Post reported.
But outside the United States, statutory restrictions on surveillance seldom apply and the FISC has no jurisdiction.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has acknowledged Congress conducts little oversight of intelligence-gathering under an executive order that defines the basic powers and responsibilities of the intelligence agencies.
In its statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence denied it was using executive authority to "get around the limitations" imposed by FISA.
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," The Post reported, quoting one of its blog posts.
Google and Yahoo also pay for premium data links, designed to be faster, more reliable and more secure, it noted.
It's not clear how much data from Americans is collected and how much is retained.
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