The National Security Agency has secretly infiltrated the main communications links connecting worldwide data centers of Yahoo and Google, Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani report.
The Post, citing documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials, details a project called MUSCULAR that sends reams of customer data from hundreds of millions of user accounts, including Americans, to NSA servers.
“Clouds,” which are massive data centers across continents that are connected by thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable, allow the Silicon Valley giants to function with minimal data loss and system slowdowns.
The NSA and its UK counterpart, the GCHC, are able to copy entire data flows across fiber-optic cables, according to the Post. That type of activity goes far beyond the PRISM program, which compels companies to provide specified foreign user data from U.S. companies under law.
The Post notes that MUSCULAR “appears to be an unusually aggressive use of NSA tradecraft against flagship American companies.”
According to a top secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — ranging from “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, to content such as text, audio and video.
The spy agency justifies what it calls “bulk access” and “high volume” operations by intercepting the communications overseas, where the NSA is allowed to presume that the users are foreigners.
The Post notes NSA documents indicate that “collection from inside Yahoo and Google has produced important intelligence leads against hostile foreign governments that are specified in the documents.”
The report also notes that it it is unclear “how much data from Americans is collected, and how much of that is retained.”
Google stated to the Post that it was “troubled by allegations of the government intercepting traffic between our data centers, and we are not aware of this activity.”
A Yahoo spokeswoman told the Post that “we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.”
The MUSCULAR operation allows the NSA to intercept communications in real time and to take “a retrospective look at target activity,” according to one NSA document.
NSA Chief Keith Alexnader denied the report: “Not to my knowledge, that’s never happened,” he told the Guardian, adding:
“Everything we do with those companies that work with us, they are compelled to work with us,” Alexander said. “These are specific requirements that come from a court order. This is not the NSA breaking into any databases. It would be illegal for us to do that. So I don’t know what the report is, but I can tell you factually: we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers, dot-dot-dot. We go through a court order.”
Here is one of the slides accompanying the Post story: