Accessing this data is possible through a combination of techniques. Through the most effective of them, the NSA can gain direct access to the fiber-optic cables that now carry most kinds of communications data. According to a slide released by Snowden, the cable-tapping operation is codenamed “UPSTREAM” and it is described as the “collection of communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.” It also appears to be both far more secret and far more invasive than the PRISM program revealed by Snowden. Although PRISM gives the NSA access to data from the individual Internet companies, such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, the companies claim that they don’t give the agency direct access to their servers. Through UPSTREAM, however, the agency does get direct access to fiber-optic cables and the supporting infrastructure that carries nearly all the Internet and telephone traffic in the country.
As part of its cable-tapping program, the NSA has secretly installed what amount to computerized filters on the telecommunications infrastructure throughout the country. According to the leaked inspector general’s report, the agency has secret cooperative agreements with the top three telephone companies in the country. Although the report disguises their names, they are likely AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint:
NSA determined that under the Authorization it could gain access to approximately 81% of the international calls into and out of the United States through three corporate partners: Company A had access to 39%, Company B 28%, and Company C 14%.
The filters are placed at key junction points known as switches. For example, much of the communications—telephone and Internet—to and from the northwestern United States pass through a nearly windowless nine-story building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. This is AT&T’s regional switching center. In 2003, the NSA built a secret room in the facility and filled it with computers and software from a company called Narus. Established in Israel by Israelis, and now owned by Boeing, Narus specializes in spyware, equipment that examines both the metadata—the names and addresses of people communicating on the Internet—and the content of digital traffic such as e-mail as it zooms past at the speed of light.
The agency also has access to the telephone metadata—the numbers called and calling and other details—of all Americans. Phone calls from telephone numbers that have been selected as targets can be routed directly to the agency and recorded. According to William Binney, the former NSA senior official, the NSA has established between ten and twenty of these secret rooms at telecom company switches around the country.
It is this daily access to the telephone metadata of all Americans without FISA warrants that the NSA and the Office of National Intelligence tried to hide when they falsely denied that the agency had surveillance records on millions of Americans. For years, the agency also had a nationwide bulk e-mail and Internet metadata collection and storage program, although that was ended in 2011 for “operational and resource reasons,” according to the director of national intelligence.
But according to a joint statement issued on July 2 by senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, the real reason the program was shut down was that the NSA was “unable” to prove the usefulness of the operation. “We were very concerned about this program’s impact on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights,” they said, “and we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down that year.” The senators added, “It is also important to note that intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the [FISA court] that significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness. This experience demonstrates to us that intelligence agencies’ assessment of the usefulness of particular collection program—even significant ones—are not always accurate.”
Speaking on Meet the Press, Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and journalist who wrote the story about the NSA’s collection of phone data for The Guardian, also mentioned a still-secret eighty-page FISA court opinion that, he said, criticized the NSA for violation of both the Fourth Amendment and the FISA statute. According to Greenwald, “it specifically said that they are collecting bulk transmissions, multiple conversations from millions of Americans…and that this is illegal.” The NSA, he said, “planned to try to accommodate that ruling.” On the same program, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the FISA court had issued a critical opinion and said that the NSA had “figured out how to correct that.”