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Jun 8, 2013 No Comments ›› Spit Stixx

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Excerpted from The Week: Analysts at the National Security Agency can now secretly access real-time user data provided by as many as 50 American companies, ranging from credit rating agencies to internet service providers, two government officials familiar with the arrangements said.

Several of the companies have provided records continuously since 2006, while others have given the agency sporadic access, these officials said. These officials disclosed the number of participating companies in order to provide context for a series of disclosures about the NSA’s domestic collection policies. The officials, contacted independently, repeatedly said that “domestic collection” does not mean that the target is based in the U.S. or is a U.S. citizen; rather, it refers only to the origin of the data.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that U.S. credit card companies had also provided customer information. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies because, they said, doing so would provide U.S. enemies with a list of companies to avoid. They declined to confirm the list of participants in an internet monitoring program revealed by the Washington Post and the Guardian, but both confirmed that the program existed.

“The idea is to create a mosaic. We get a tip. We vet it. Then we mine the data for intelligence,” one of the officials said.

In a statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that programs collect communications “pursuant to section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, ” and “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S person, or anyone within the United States.”

He called the leaks “reprehensible” and said the program “is among the most important” sources of “valuable” intelligence information the government takes in.

One of the officials who spoke to me said that because data types are not standardized, the NSA needs several different collection tools, of which PRISM, disclosed today by the Guardian and the Washington Post, is one. PRISM works well because it is able to handle several different types of data streams using different basic encryption methods, the person said. It is a “front end” system, or software, that allows an NSA analyst to search through the data and pull out items of significance, which are then stored in any number of databases. PRISM works with another NSA program to encrypt and remove from the analysts’ screen data that a computer or the analyst deems to be from a U.S. person who is not the subject of the investigation, the person said. A FISA order is required to continue monitoring and analyzing these datasets, although the monitoring can start before an application package is submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

From the different types of data, including their credit card purchases, the locations they sign in to the internet from, and even local police arrest logs, the NSA can track people it considers terrorism or espionage suspects in near-real time. An internet geo-location cell is on constant standby to help analysts determine where a subject logs in from. Most of the collection takes place on subjects outside the U.S, but a large chunk of the world’s relevant communication passes through American companies with servers on American soil. So the NSA taps in locally to get at targets globally.

It is not clear how the NSA interfaces with the companies. It cannot use standard law enforcement transmission channels to do, since most use data protocols that are not compatible with that hardware. Several of the companies mentioned in the Post report deny granting access to the NSA, although it is possible that they are lying, or that the NSA’s arrangements with the company are kept so tightly compartmentalized that very few people know about it. Those who do probably have security clearances and are bound by law not to reveal the arrangement.

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