WASHINGTON // The US National Security Agency has tapped into key communications links from Yahoo and Google data centres around the world, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
The Post, citing documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with officials, said the programme can collect data at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, including from Americans.
The report said the programme dubbed Muscular, operated jointly with NSA’s British counterpart GCHQ, indicated that the agencies can intercept data flows from the fibre-optic cables used by the US internet giants.
The Post report suggests this is a secret programme that is unlike Prism, which relies on court orders to obtain data from technology firms.
According to a top secret document cited by the newspaper dated January 9, 2013, about 181 million records were collected in the prior 30 days, ranging from metadata on emails to content such as text, audio and video.
The document shown by the Post indicates that the NSA intercept takes place outside the United States, and that an unnamed telecommunications provider allowed the secret access.
A graphic in the document suggested that the interception at Google came at a point between the public internet and Google “cloud” servers.
Acting outside US territory would give the NSA more latitude than within the United States, where it would require court orders, the Post noted.
General Keith Alexander, NSA director, denied that the agency had tapped directly into Yahoo and Google servers.
“NSA does collect information on terrorists and our national intelligence priorities but we are not authorised to go into a US company’s servers and take data,” Gen Alexander said at a Bloomberg Government cybersecurity conference in Washington yesterday.
He added that NSA gains access to data “by court order” and that it would not be “breaking into any databases”.
The report comes amid a storm of protest about NSA surveillance both at home and overseas of phone and internet communications.
On Tuesday, US officials said reports that American spy agencies snooped on millions of Europeans were false.
Gen Alexander told legislators that in many cases European spy agencies had turned over phone call records and shared them with US intelligence.
Yahoo has “strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centres, and we have not given access to our data centres to the NSA or to any other government agency,” Sarah Meron, a spokeswoman for the Sunnyvale, California-based company, said yesterday.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Bloomberg News