The American intelligence director and the White House have finally confirmed what insiders have long known: The Obama administration is spying on the entire world.
South of Utah's Great Salt Lake, the National Security Agency (NSA), a United States foreign intelligence service, keeps watch over one of its most expensive secrets. Here, on 100,000 square metres near the US military's Camp Williams, the NSA is constructing enormous buildings to house superfast computers. All together, the project will cost around $2 billion and the computers will be capable of storing a gigantic volume of data, at least five billion gigabytes. The energy needed to power the cooling system for the servers alone will cost $40 million a year.
Former NSA employees Thomas Drake and Bill Binney told SPIEGEL the facility would soon store personal data on people from all over the world and keep it for decades. This includes emails, Skype conversations, Google searches, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, bank transfers -- electronic data of every kind.
"They have everything about you in Utah," Drake says. "Who decides whether they look at that data? Who decides what they do with it?"
Binney, a mathematician who was previously an influential analyst at the NSA, calculates that the servers are large enough to store the entirety of humanity's electronic communications for the next 100 years -- and that, of course, gives his former colleagues plenty of opportunity to read along and listen in.
James Clapper, the country's director of national intelligence, has confirmed the existence of a large-scale surveillance program. President Barack Obama further explained that Congress authorized the program -- but that American citizens are exempt from it.
A top-secret document published last week by the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian shows where the NSA may be getting the majority of its data. According to the document, which was leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden, the intelligence agency began seeking out direct access to servers belonging to American Internet companies on a wide scale in 2007. The first of these companies to come onboard was Microsoft. Yahoo followed half a year later, then Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL. The most recent company to declare its willingness to cooperate was Apple, in October 2012, according to the secret government document, which proudly states that this access to data is achieved "directly from the servers" of the companies.
The companies in question denied that claim. But if what the document says is true, the NSA has the potential to know what every person in the world who uses these companies' services is doing.
The program's Utah compound is full of security fences, watchdogs and surveillance cameras, as well as biometric identification system equipment. Two informants say the location for the server facility was by no means an accident. Utah is home to the largest number of Mormons in the world. The highly religious community sends its young members around the world as missionaries -- and many are then recruited by the Utah Army National Guard, whose 300th Military Intelligence Brigade employs 1,600 linguists. The NSA has access to these linguists at all times, and one insider believes they are used in "analyzing international telecommunications."
In the secret document, the NSA's surveillance program is referred to by the name 'Prism.' A prism is also the shape that reflects light in fiber optic cables -- the same cables that form the backbone of the world's Internet traffic. The document, which was authored for an internal NSA presentation, shows that even data streams traveling from Europe to Asia, the Pacific region or South America often pass through servers in the U.S. "A target's phone call, email or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path," the document reads.
The Bush administration legalized this new dimension to government snooping, but it was the Obama administration that renewed the law in December 2012. The law permits, for example, the surveillance of all Google users not living in the U.S., as well as communications between American citizens and people in other countries.
The document also shows that with programs such as Prism, the NSA is reinterpreting the legal basis for its actions on one crucial point. For decades, intelligence services required an order from a special court with precise specifications on their suspect if they wanted to monitor an email account, for example. Now, it's enough if the NSA has reasonable evidence that a subject is either living abroad or communicating with someone who lives outside the U.S. This expands the circle of potential suspects, lowers bureaucratic hurdles and reduces democratic checks and balances, making it even easier and faster to gather data on even more people.
The NSA's data collection powers extend far beyond American Internet servers. The agency also conducts reconnaissance around the globe, for example with satellites. It has also installed high-performance antennae in various countries to pick up mobile phone communications. Never before has a government collected data on such a large scale.
A rare glimpse into what intelligence services can do by applying this "big data" approach came last year from David Petraeus. This new form of data analysis is concerned with discovering "non-obvious relationships," the then freshly minted CIA director explained at a conference. This includes, for example "finding connections between a purchase here, a phone call there, a grainy video, customs and immigration information."
The goal, according to Petraeus, is for big data to "lead to automated discovery, rather than depending on the right analyst asking the right question." Algorithms pick out connections automatically from the unstructured sea of data they trawl.
The NSA's research projects aim to forecast, on the basis of telephone data and Twitter and Facebook posts, when uprisings, social protests and other events will occur. The agency is also researching new methods of analysis for surveillance videos with the hopes of recognizing conspicuous behaviour before an attack is committed.
Gus Hunt, the CIA's chief technology officer, made a forthright admission in March: "We fundamentally try to collect everything and hang onto it forever." What he meant by "everything," Hunt also made clear: "It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human-generated information," he said.
That statement is difficult to reconcile with the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy. This is probably why Hunt added, almost apologetically: "Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up."
-- Der Spiegel