Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Intelligence Community Mines Phone Records, Internet Data


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Just one day after we learned the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting telephone records from millions of Americans, it's been revealed that the agency is also running a massive Internet surveillance program.

MONTAGNE: Last night, both the Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers reported that the intelligence agency and the FBI are directly tapping into the central servers of some of the country's biggest Internet firms.

WERTHEIMER: This data-mining practice appears to be legal, and it could be the beginning of something new in the intelligence community: the use of data to find patterns that analysts might otherwise miss in tracking terrorists. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following both stories; she joins us now.

Dina, can we start with the data-mining story? What are the Washington Post and The Guardian reporting?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, they say the NSA has a data-mining program, that it's code-named PRISM. The Washington Post article says the NSA and the FBI have direct access to servers of companies like Microsoft or Google, Facebook and Apple. And they gather information on foreign communications that way.

It sounds a little bit like a social media version of a Bush administration program that did something similar, to track terrorist financing. In that case, the U.S. Treasury and the CIA found a back door to access foreign financial transactions. Now, these current stories are both based on leaks, so we don't have complete information on this program. But the implication is that ordinary Internet behavior of Americans either could be, or is being, tracked by the government.

WERTHEIMER: When you say ordinary Internet behavior, what would that include? What's being collected?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, according to the newspaper reports, it includes emails, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data - the kinds of things that would be stored on cloud services like Google Drive.

WERTHEIMER: And of course, the big question is why? Do we know why the NSA and the FBI are examining this data, and what they're doing with the information?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, put out a statement last night that said the information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information the U.S. collects. And he said that the program is specifically designed not to target Americans, or even people in the U.S. This is about overseas communications, not U.S. communications.

WERTHEIMER: The articles also cite a number of leading Internet companies involved in this PRISM program. You already mentioned Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple; but there's also Yahoo, Skype, YouTube, a few others. What are the tech companies saying?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the chief security officer for Facebook has said that no government organization is given direct access to Facebook servers. But he did say Facebook complies with the law, when asked to provide information about specific individuals. An Apple spokesman said they'd never heard of the PRISM program, and they don't provide any government agency with direct access to their servers.

Google - it said it reviews requests from the government for customer information, and it's denied reports that it created a backdoor into Google that allows the government to access private user information.

WERTHEIMER: Dina, yesterday we talked about the NSA collecting millions of telephone records belonging to ordinary Americans. That sort of searching is not restricted to foreigners, as I understand it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. It turns out that the U.S. government has been collecting data on phone calls made here, in the U.S., for years. The Guardian newspaper published an order from a FISA court judge that approved the collection of something called metadata, on a daily basis. That's basic data about electronic communications. So it includes, for example, from where a phone call was made and a phone number, among other things. It includes duration of a phone call.

But if you step back, what you're really seeing here is an early glimpse of how intelligence is going to be collected in the future. Storing data has become so inexpensive that government agencies are hanging on to information, in anticipation that it might bring them some sort of intelligence later.

And this is the idea of big data. You take reams of information, search it using algorithms, and then try to find patterns you might otherwise have missed. The CIA is invested in a number of big data companies, in anticipation of one day using a computer to find people - through patterns of behavior - who might be a threat. And this is going to raise profound questions about privacy.

WERTHEIMER: Dina, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.