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Once heralded as a communication tool free from eavesdropping, Skype is now reportedly under scrutiny for secretly and voluntarily handing over personal data on users to government agencies.
The Microsoft-owned instant-messaging site, used by some 600 million people worldwide, is being probed by Luxembourg's data protection commissioner over concerns about its secret cooperation with the US National Security Agency’s Prism spying program, according to a report in the Guardian, the UK newspaper that first broke the story on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Skype, believed to be the first Internet company among many to be brought within the NSA program, could potentially face criminal and administrative charges, as well as hefty fines if it is found to be in violation of Luxembourg’s data protection laws.
If found guilty, Skype be banned from passing along user data to the US spy agency, the newspaper reported.
The Luxembourg commissioner initiated an investigation into Skype's privacy policies following revelations in June about its ties to the NSA, the Guardian said. No additional comments were immediately available.
Microsoft’s purchase of Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011 “tripled some types of data flow to the NSA,” the Guardian said, citing secret documents in its possession.
But even before the Microsoft buyout, Skype had initiated its own secret program, dubbed Project Chess, which sought ways of making customer communications “readily available to intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials,” The New York Times reported.
According to the NSA files shown by Snowden to the Guardian, Skype was served with a directive to comply with an NSA surveillance request signed by US Attorney General Eric Holder in February 2011. Several days later, the NSA had successfully monitored its first Skype transmission.
Skype, founded in Estonia in 2003 and now headquartered in Luxembourg, is facing a public backlash in the wake of the Prism disclosures.
"The only people who lose are users," Eric King, head of research at human rights group Privacy International, said in comments to the Guardian. "Skype promoted itself as a fantastic tool for secure communications around the world, but quickly caved to government pressure and can no longer be trusted to protect user privacy."
October 11, 2013 | rt.com
The National Security Agency isn’t about to stop collecting billions of phone records in bulk, but Director Keith Alexander has offered does think he has a new way to go about retaining that data.
Alexander told a cyber-security forum this week that the intelligence gathered by way of the government’s court-approved program, which collects phone metadata in bulk, might be better off stored in a neutral location, and not one so strictly tied to his top-secret agency.
“I believe it is in our nation’s best interest to put all this phone data into a repository where you, the American people, know what we are doing with it,” Alexander said at Tuesday’s event, hosted by Politico.
“I’m open for greater transparency. I’m open for where we put the data,” he said.
As TechDirt’s Tim Cushing was quick to point out, however: “That would be all well and good, except for the fact that the data itself comes from ‘neutral’ sites, or at least sites that were neutral before they were approached by the government.”
Indeed, the millions of phone records compiled daily from major telecommunication providers have — as far as we’ve been told, at least — never originated out of NSA facilities. Rather, the government has relied on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-authorized directives renewed regularly to force those companies to cough up raw data about who called whom and when after its recorded by their own systems.
At Tuesday’s event, Alexander once again defended the program, insisting it was key to thwarting potential terror attacks in the US and abroad.
“If we don’t know there is a threat, we can’t stop it,” he said.
Critics of the NSA’s operations have questioned the capabilities of the bulk data collection program, however, arguing largely that the court orders are too broad and put millions of innocent Americans onto the government’s radar without them even being suspected of any criminal activity.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), a co-author of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, recently said he was working on a bill that would reform the government’s surveillance tactics and “put their metadata program out of business."
Citing the unauthorized disclosure of national security documents earlier this year by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and the discussions they spawned, Sensenbrenner told the Guardian newspaper that the public dialogue and new developments about the NSA’s other operations had opened the door for reform.
"Opinions have hardened with the revelations over the summer, particularly the inspector general's report that there were thousands of violations of regulations, and the disclosure that NSA employees were spying on their spouses or significant others, which was very chilling," he said.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington last month, Alexander answered questions from Congress about the NSA’s programs and at the time suggested that the data being collected should be stored somewhere, though he stopped short of suggesting any kind of third-party repository.
At the same time, though, Alexander admitted that there was no “upper limit” with regard to how much phone data the government wants to collect, and said: “I believe that it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox.”
Snowden, the former contractor at Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked top-secret NSA files to the Guardian starting earlier this year, including one document released in early June that revealed the NSA’s reliance on Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect that information, unbeknownst to most Americans until now.
Leading members of the United States intelligence community continued to defend the government's vast surveillance programs in Washington on Thursday and suggested that those agency's capabilities exceed what's been previously reported.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon, lawmakers asked representatives from the National Security Agency, Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide more information about the surveillance programs operated by the government and exposed through a series of unauthorized disclosures attributed to former contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year.
The hearing, the first open meeting of the committee since March, centered on the NSA's authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and PATRIOT Act that allow the government to gather basic records pertaining to the communications of American citizens.
Documents leaked by Snowden since June of this year have revealed that the government uses those authorities to collect intel at a much greater degree then previously reported. Upon questioning from the panel on Thursday, it was suggested that the NSA gathers even more information than assumed.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA and US Cyber Command, told lawmakers that he didn't think there was any “upper limit” with regards to how many telephone records the government wants to collect.
When asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) if the agency's goal was to collect the phone records of all Americans, Alexander said, “I believe that it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox.”
Prior to asking his question, Wyden said he gave the panel advance notice of what he'd ask.
A critic of the NSA's programs since even before Snowden began leaking documents, Wyden told the witnesses, “ the leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the America people.”
“Time and time again, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums, while government agencies did something else in private,” Wyden said.
Alexander was flanked by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Wyden infamously showed down with Clapper earlier this year when he asked the lawmaker if the intelligence community collects information on millions of Americans. Clapper responded “not wittingly,” then later apologized to Committe Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-California) for his “clearly erroneous” remark after Snowden's leaks suggested otherwise only weeks later.
"So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over, my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer," Wyden told the Washington Post after the March meeting. "Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures, and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives.”
On Thursday, Alexander phrased questioning directed at Gen. Alexander in an attempt to determine if the NSA collected information from cell phone towers that could be used to locate customers. Alexander decline to provide a straight answer during an unclassified hearing.
“If you're responding to my question by not answering it because you think thats a classified matter, that is certainly your right,” said Wyden. “ We will continue to explore that because I believe that is something the American people deserve to know.”
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