New PRISM Slides Revive Fears NSA Has Internet Back Doors

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Four new leaked slides complicate the PRISM picture

Four new slides released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden through the Washington Post have revived fears that Google and other Internet giants give the US security services a “back door” to access their customers’ data by allowing government monitoring equipment on their premises.

The slides are part of a Powerpoint presentation on the NSA’s PRISM programme, revealed in June, which the National Security Agency (NSA) uses to gather data on non-US citizens. The slides appear to repeat claims that giants, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple, give the agency access to their servers; however, the Internet firms denied this last month, and some people are casting doubt on the Post‘s interpretation.

surveillance cameras © Alexey Klementiev - Fotolia

Prism information mining

“The FBI uses government equipment on private company property to retrieve matching information from a participating company, such as Microsoft or Yahoo and pass it without further review to the NSA,” according to the Washington Post‘s annotations on the new slides.

The NSA slides show an FBI “data intercept technology unit” (DITU) which collects data from Internet companies and filters and processes it before handing it to the NSA and CIA. However, some people believe the Post  is jumping to conclusions about the location of the unit.

“Google has said in the past that when it receives a valid FISA court order under the associated program it uses secure FTP to ship the info to the government,” says Mike Masnick at TechDirt. “From that, it seems like the “DITU” could just be a government computer somewhere, not on the premises of these companies, and info is uploaded to those servers following valid FISC orders.”

The information apparently goes as two feeds, for surveillance of live data and analysis of stored documents, according to the slides. The feed of stored information is sifted by the FBI to remove “non-Americans”, as the information is extracted under FISA (the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act) which allows surveillance of foreign nationals and requires the organisations providing that data to keep quiet about it. 

The live feed is apparently not filtered in this way, according to the flow chart on the leaked slides.

Again, just how live that feed is, is open to question. Some have reported that actual keystrokes are reported in real time, but the new batch of slides talk of “real time notifications” of a user logging in or out of a chat session, or sending a message: still a concern, but at a different level.

The new slides mean a total of nine slides have been leaked from the whole presentation, which runs to 41 slides. More information may be contained in the rest of the presentation –  however, the story will be very hard to pin down. The presentation itself may be doubtful in some way – perhaps over-stating the power of PRISM for internal reasons. And the Internet firms’ denials may be open to question, since they are actually forbidden from talking about FISA requests.

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NSA Prism Leak Slides

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NSA Prism Leak Flow Chart
Powerpoint slide leaked Jun 2013 to the Washington Post