One top-secret document obtained by The Post described it as “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
Intelligence community sources said that this description, although inaccurate from a technical perspective, matches the experience of analysts at the NSA. From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may “task” the system and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff. […]
According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process.
That sounds like a backdoor that allows the NSA to request essentially whatever information it wants for foreigners from Google, Yahoo and the rest. There’s been a lot of talk (here’s a good summary) that the characterization of PRISM as “direct access” was an overreach. This Post piece makes that access sound pretty fucking direct to me.
If this goes like other big leak stories of the last few years, we’re going to be hearing more clarifications like this one as reporters go through the documents they have. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the rush to get something out quickly, reporters’ lack of technical knowledge, and the “blind man and the elephant” phenomenon when dealing with top secret information, which means that reporters have to make qualified guesses about facts that are just hinted at in the leaked documents.
And, yes, Glenn Greenwald has an anti-surveillance agenda, so when he makes an educated guess, he’s going to assume the worst. That might bite him in the ass at some point, but reading today’s Guardian story and looking at the supporting documents, I don’t see a big overreach. The “Boundless Information” slides show that the NSA has collected 3 billion items of information on Americans in April, and that the US is coded “yellow”, which means the amount of information collected here is comparable to China. Arguing over Glenn’s spin is one thing, but unless these documents are some kind of fabrication, the NSA has some explaining to so, since they’ve categorically denied gathering “any kind of data at all” on Americans.
But I’m sure those of you who were calling me a bad Democrat for the crime of mentioning Glenn’s reporting have a reason why today’s Guardian story is completely wrong, too. Because the most important thing here isn’t what the NSA is collecting on Americans, but the fact that Glenn Fucking Greenwald is the guy reporting it.