SAN FRANCISCO/VATICAN CITY - The National Security Agency has tapped directly into communications links used by Google and Yahoo to move huge amounts of email and other user information among overseas data centers, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
The report, based on secret NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, appears to show the agency has used weak restrictions on its overseas activities to exploit major US companies' data to a far greater extent than realised.
Previously reported programs included those that allowed easy searches of Google's, Yahoo's and other Internet giants' material based on court orders. But since the interception in the newly disclosed effort, code named MUSCULAR, occurs outside the United States, there is no oversight by the secret intelligence court.
The Post said the operation gained access to a cable or switch that relayed the traffic through an unnamed telecommunications provider.
"We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform," said Google chief legal officer David Drummond. Google said it had not been aware of the programme, although it recently began speeding its efforts to encrypt internal traffic.
The newly disclosed programme, operated jointly with the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, amassed 181 million records in one recent 30-day span, according to one document reported by the Post. It could not be learned how much of that included material from US residents, how the agency redacted data on them or how much of the information was retained.
'Valid foreign intelligence targets only'
An NSA spokesperson said in a statement the suggestion in the Post article that the agency relies on a presidential order on foreign intelligence gathering to skirt domestic restrictions imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other laws "is not true."
"The assertion that we collect vast quantities of US persons' data from this type of collection is also not true," the statement said. "NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we're focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only."
Asked at an event in Washington about the latest report, NSA Director General Keith Alexander said that he had not read it but that the agency did not have unfettered access to the US companies' servers.
"I can tell you factually we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers," Alexander said at a Bloomberg Government conference. "We go through a court order."