Snowden's Latest Bombshell: NSA Secretly Taps Google, Yahoo's Global Data Centers

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 30 2013 1:24 PM

The New Snowden Leak Is a Doozy

71213848
Google's two new computing centers are seen from the air June 15, 2006 in The Dalles, Oregon

File photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images

The Washington Post went live this afternoon with the latest Snowden-fueled report, and this one seems like a doozy. In short, the NSA is said to have secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo's and Google's global data centers that form their respective globe-spanning networks known as "clouds." Why is that a big deal? Because by doing that the NSA has "positioned itself to collect at will from among hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans," according to the report:

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 NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency’s British counterpart, GCHQ. From undisclosed interception points, the NSA and GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information between the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.
The infiltration is especially striking because the NSA, under a separate program known as PRISM, has front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a court-approved process. The MUSCULAR project appears to be an unusually aggressive use of NSA tradecraft against flagship American companies. The agency is built for high-tech spying, with a wide range of digital tools, but it has not been known to use them routinely against U.S. companies.
Advertisement

Slate will have more on the news shortly, but in the meantime you can—and should—check out the full report here (which includes an image of a top-secret document with a big, old hand-drawn emoticon on it). While much of the recent Snowden leaks have caused diplomatic headaches for the administration abroad, these new revelations are likely to land harder at home, where most Americans are more likely to care that their government is potentially spying on them than they are about their government's efforts to listen in on the calls of world leaders abroad.

Under PRISM, the NSA was forcing Yahoo, Google and other companies to turn over huge volumes of online communications or data that matched certain court-approved search terms. MUSCULAR, however, appears to go much further, and the large-scale collection would actually be illegal if it occurred within U.S. borders. But because the data centers are scattered around the globe, the NSA is apparently allowed to presume that anyone using a foreign data link is a foreigner.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Books
Sept. 17 2014 10:36 AM MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel Recounts Telling Her Mother About Her Best-Selling Memoir MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel recounts telling her mother about her best-selling memoir.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 17 2014 11:06 AM Inside the Exclusive World of Members-Only Clubs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 11:14 AM How Does That Geometry Problem Make You Feel? Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.