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Google ‘outraged’ over new NSA spying claims

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-10-31

The NSA hacked into cables used by Google and Yahoo to transport information between data centres around the world to access a vast quantity of information on users, according to a report in the Washington Post on Wednesday.

Google has said it is outraged over new claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) hacked into its communication links  to access user data from among hundreds of millions of accounts.

A report, published in the Washington Post on Wednesday and based on secret NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, said the agency tapped directly into cables used by Google and fellow internet giant Yahoo to connect their data centres around the world.

This allows the NSA to send millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, said the Post.

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, according to the newspaper.

“We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform,” said Google chief legal officer David Drummond.

“We do not provide any government, including the US government, with access to our systems,” he added.

A Yahoo 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.”

‘Valid foreign intelligence targets’

The Post said 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 report suggests that through this programme the NSA has been able to exploit major US companies’ data to a far greater extent than previously realised, partly by using weak restrictions on its overseas activities.

Under the NSA’s PRISM surveillance programme, the agency gathers data by legally compelling US technology companies, including Yahoo and Google, to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.

US officials have said the programme is narrowly focused on foreign targets, and technology companies say they turn over information only if required by court order.

NSA 'skirted' US restrictions when spying abroad

But by collecting the MUSCULAR data overseas,  the NSA is able to circumvent the legal restrictions that prevent it from accessing the communications of people who live in the United States, said the Post, with the operation instead falling under an executive order, signed by the president, used to authorise foreign intelligence operations.

An NSA spokesperson said in a statement the suggestion the NSA relies on a presidential order to skirt domestic restrictions imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other laws “is not true”.

“The assertion that we collect vast quantities of US persons’ data from this type of collection is also not true,” the statement said. “NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we’re focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only.”

Asked at an event in Washington about the latest report, NSA Director General Keith Alexander said that he had not read it but that the agency did not have unfettered access to the US companies’ servers.

“I can tell you factually we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers,” Alexander said at a Bloomberg Government conference. “We go through a court order.”

He did not directly address whether the agency intercepts such traffic in transit. The NSA is known to tap undersea cables.

The report is likely to add to growing tensions between the US intelligence establishment and the tech companies, which have been struggling to assure customers overseas that they need not fear US spying.

NSA denies spying on Vatican

Meanwhile, the NSA was also forced to deny on Wednesday that it had spied on the Vatican.

A report by Italian magazine Panorama, which did not cite any sources, said that the NSA had eavesdropped on Vatican phone calls, possibly including when former Pope Benedict's successor was under discussion.

"The National Security Agency does not target the Vatican. Assertions that NSA has targeted the Vatican, published in Italy's Panorama magazine, are not true," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement.

Panorama said the NSA had monitored 46 million phone calls in Italy from December 10, 2012, to January 8, 2013, including conversations in and out of the Vatican.

The Holy See said in a statement that it had no knowledge of any such activity.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-10-31

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