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NSA Secretly Tapped Google, Yahoo Data Centers, Report Says

Agency refutes allegations, while Google is outraged over the reported interception of data from its networks.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that a review of documents leaked by Edward Snowden, together with interviews with “knowledgeable officials,” has revealed that the National Security Agency managed to secretly break into private clouds at Google and Yahoo, tapping into the links that connect the companies’ data centers around the world.

In doing so, the NSA was able collect data from millions of Internet users--many of them Americans--at its whim, according to the report. To that end, the Post reported that a top-secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, indicated that in the previous 30 days, NSA field collectors had processed and sent back more than 181 million new records, including text, audio, video and metadata showing who sent or received emails.

The NSA categorically denied the article's suggestions that the agency has exploited loopholes in Executive Order 12333, which was signed by President Reagan in 1981 and essentially guides what U.S. intelligence agencies can and cannot do.

“The assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons’ data from this type of collection is also not true,” the NSA said in a prepared statement responding to the Post report. “NSA applies Attorney General-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons--minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention, and dissemination.”

Both Google and Yahoo made it clear that the NSA’s actions, regardless of the specifics, have occurred without the companies’ blessings.

“We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said in a prepared statement. “We have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.”

[Revelations about NSA data surveillance has shattered whatever trust customers had in the security of WAN connections from service providers. Read why you need to encrypt and consider less-expensive Internet connections in "WAN Encryption Tops The Agenda After NSA Revelations."]

Google issued a tersely worded statement from David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer. And it’s no wonder, as the Snowden documents included a hand-drawn NSA slide depicting the apparent cracking of a secure link between the public Internet and Google’s internal cloud, which would have allowed access to the company’s data center links.

“We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we have continued to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links, especially the links in the slide,” said Drummond. “We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems. 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.”

As for that reform, Larry Ponemon, founder of privacy and security research think tank The Ponemon Institute, says Google and others shouldn’t hold their breath.

“The right thing to do is to explain in clear and concise language how government access to our personal information can be managed ethically,” Ponemon said via email. “This means greater transparency and honesty about how our personal information is or will be used. I’m not optimistic that such disclosures will happen soon.”

In the meantime, Ponemon said, consumers simply cannot count on the Googles and Yahoos of the world to adequately protect their information--not because they’re not trying, but rather because it’s too tall an order.

“It may be foolish to trust in the privacy commitments of Internet and social media websites,” he said. “It is nearly impossible to protect personal information in this connected world.” What’s more, he said, any efforts to protect consumer data from the prying eyes of federal agencies like the NSA are likely to prove futile.

“This is a David and Goliath story,” said Ponemon, “where Goliath wins.”

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