WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, The Washington Post has reported, citing documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
A secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, indicates that NSA sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency's Fort Meade, Md., headquarters. 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, the Post reported Wednesday on its website.
The latest revelations were met with outrage from Google, and triggered legal questions, including whether the NSA may be violating federal wiretap laws.
"Although there's a diminished standard of legal protection for interception that occurs overseas, the fact that it was directed apparently to Google's cloud and Yahoo's cloud, and that there was no legal order -- as best we can tell -- to permit the interception, there is a good argument to make that the NSA has engaged in unlawful surveillance," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center. The reference to "clouds" refers to sites where the companies collect data.
The new details about NSA accessing Yahoo and Google data centers around the world come as Congress is reconsidering the government's collection practices and authority, and as European governments are responding angrily to revelations that the NSA collected data on millions of communications in their nations. Details of the NSA programs have been trickling out since Mr. Snowden shared secret documents with the Post and Guardian newspaper in June.
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 Post said NSA and GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information between the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.
The NSA has a separate data-gathering program, called PRISM, which uses a court order to compel Yahoo, Google and other Internet firms to provide certain data. It allows the NSA to reach into the companies' data streams and grab emails, video chats, pictures and more. U.S. officials have said the program is narrowly focused on foreign targets, and technology firms say they turn over information only if required by court order.
In a Bloomberg News interview Wednesday, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked whether the NSA has infiltrated Yahoo and Google databases. "Not to my knowledge," he said. "We are not authorized to go into a U.S. company's servers and take data. We'd have to go through a court process for doing that."
But it was unclear whether Gen. Alexander had immediate knowledge of the Post report's latest disclosure. He appeared to speak more about the PRISM program and its legal parameters.
In a separate statement, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said NSA has "multiple authorities" to accomplish its mission, and that "the assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons' data from this type of collection is also not true." At no point did the NSA deny the MUSCULAR program's existence. The GCHQ had no comment.
The Post said the NSA was breaking into data centers worldwide.