Several American high-tech companies have scrambled to reassure users after a report that government agencies have been accessing their data. This follows a report about mass surveillance of Americans' telephone calls.
The report published by the Washington Post on Thursday said the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI had direct access to the servers of nine major Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple.
The report said the NSA and FBI were "tapping directly into the central servers" of the companies under a secret program known as PRISM, which allowed them to extract videos, audios, photographs, emails and other personal data.
The report quoted an unnamed intelligence officer who had "first-hand experience of these systems and horror at their capabilities," and wanted to expose the practice. "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," the paper quoted the officer as saying.
Several of the companies named in the report scrambled to reassure their users about the security of their data.
Google denied in a statement that it had ever created a "back door" to allow the government access to its users’ data.
"We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers," a statement released by Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer said.
Yahoo issued a similar statement, saying it "takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling told the Reuters news agency that he had never even heard of PRISM.
"We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order," he said.
Politicians defend phone surveilance
This followed an unusual display of unity by leading politicians from both major US political parties earlier in the day. This came in response to a report published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper about telephone surveillance.
It cited a copy of a secret court order requiring the communications giant Verizon to turn over records of phone calls made by its customers.
According to the report, the order came from a court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which oversees applications for electronic surveillance. It was unclear whether other communications companies had received similar orders.
"It's called protecting America," the chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein said. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, who is known as a vocal critic of President Barack Obama, expressed a similar sentiment.
Without directly confirming the practice, White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest described the NSA's phone record program as "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats." He also stressed that such a court order did not allow the government to actually listen in on phone calls.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, sharply criticized the "numerous inaccuracies" in the news reports for misleading readers into believing investigators could search records indiscriminately.
"The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization," said Clapper in a statement released late on Thursday.
The intelligence director maintained that The Guardian and the Washington Post reports had revealed information which could cause long-term damage to national security efforts.
"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans," he said.
pfd, kms/msh (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)