Backlash Against NSA's Google, Yahoo Surveillance Gains Momentum

The latest revelations that the National Security Agency tapped Web connections of the nations' largest online service providers has prompted calls for new rules limiting domestic spying.

The backlash against the surveillance and data-gathering activities of the National Security Agency gathered momentum the week of Oct. 25 with more calls for political action and new revelations about the extent to which the spy agency went to tap into Internet communications.

On Oct. 30, the Washington Post published additional documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showing that the spy agency had tapped the communications links between the Internet and the data centers of large online service providers.

The information, contained in a PowerPoint slide used by the agency to brief officials on a project known as MUSCULAR, indicates that the agency allegedly had access to traffic going into Google's and Yahoo's data centers. The NSA harvested some 180 million records in a single month, the article stated.

The evidence of significant surveillance and data-collection activity came the day after two congressmen introduced a bill to curb the NSA's activities and the Obama administration announced that it had initiated an investigation into the agency. Large technology companies also jumped into the fray, releasing a letter that called for meaningful change in how the NSA operates and supporting the new bill, called the USA Freedom Act.

"Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs," stated the letter, which was written over the corporate logos of AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. The letter was originally published by the Washington Post.

The latest revelations may galvanize support for USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end dragnet data collection of phone records and create a special advocate for privacy rights in the secretive courts that hold jurisdiction for intelligence operations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The bipartisan bill, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-WI, would also allow greater details of intelligence operations to be reported by companies.

"It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community," Leahy said in a statement. "Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough. We need real reform."

Yet the bill falls short of the necessary measures needed to reign in the NSA, according to other security experts.

In light of the massive amounts of data that the NSA was able to harvest, the information released on the agency's system for making legal requests of the online service providers was just "cover," security expert Bruce Schneier stated in a blog post.

To start unraveling the mess created by a supra-legal entity such as the National Security Agency, the Obama administration needs to create a special prosecutor with the capability and clearance to investigate the NSA, according to Schneier.

"He needs the power to subpoena government officials and take their sworn testimony," Schneier wrote. "He needs the ability to bring criminal indictments where appropriate. And, of course, he needs the requisite security clearance to see it all."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...