FISA Amendments Act authorizes PRISM, say officials

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An intelligence collection program named PRISM that gathers data from electronic communication service providers does exist, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged (.pdf) June 8.

Two days earlier, the Washington Post and The Guardian both published slides from a top secret National Security Agency presentation on the PRISM data collection program, reporting that the intelligence community has "direct access" to the content of communications from emails, chats, file transfers and voice-over Internet protocol sent through most major U.S. Internet companies – Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple, as well as from PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL.

Over the weekend, the self-professed leaker, identified by The Guardian as Edward Snowden, a former CIA technical assistant and Booz Allen Hamilton contractor for the National Security Agency, stepped forward to identify himself. Snowden's last known location was a hotel in Hong Kong; some congressmen such as Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) have called for his extradition.

The companies have been quick to deny that they provide direct access to the federal government. In a typical response, Google executives said June 7 they "had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday" and that the company has "not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers."

In an addition to its original article, the Washington Post said that the term "direct access" might be imprecise, stating that "in another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing 'collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,' rather than directly to company servers.'"

In another June 8 statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper criticized the leaks as "reckless" and said they "are lawful and conducted under authorities widely known and discussed."

Officials have said the program's authorization comes from the FISA Amendments Act, a law that gained a 5 year extension through 2017 in December following President Obama's approval of a reauthorization bill. It permits the intelligence community to collect communications involving non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located abroad without specifying to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court specific targets or facilities, via a certification submitted by the director of national intelligence and attorney general that the purpose of the surveillance is collection of foreign intelligence information. Critics have said the standard for collection is too low and have pointed to the inevitability of U.S. communications being caught up in the monitoring. Many also note that requirements under the law that FISA Amendment Act targeting minimization requirements don't stop the collection of incidental communications and doesn't require their deletion. "FISA minimization allows the government to keep information concerning Americans until it 'could not be' foreign intelligence information, wrote Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Center for Internet and Society in a November 2012 blog post.

The Supreme Court in February dismissed a challenge to its constitutionality on the grounds that its bringers lacked standing, since they couldn't prove that their communications with foreigners had been monitored under the act's authority.

In a June 7 statement, President Obama sought to downplay the program, stating that it "does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States," adding that Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have been fully apprised and authorized it, respectively.

For more:
- download a DNI factsheet on PRISM (.pdf)
- go to a June 8 statement from James Clapper on PRISM
- read Google's PRISM statement
- read Facebook's PRISM statement
- read Yahoo's PRISM statement
- read Microsoft's PRISM statement

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