NSA's Cell Phone and Email Spying PRISM Program Costs Taxpayers $20 Million Annually

Paul Lilly

U.S. government is watching you through a PRISM.

Privacy advocates are up in arms over reports that the U.S. government is harvesting cell phone and email data from major Internet companies, including Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Through a supposed top secret program codenamed PRISM, the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI have what appears to be unfettered access to emails, chat logs, voice calls, videos, photographs, documents, and more.

In addition to the three companies named above, leaked PowerPoint slides reveal that Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, and AOL also participate in the court-approved program, according to a report in The Washington Post . PRISM is focused on foreign traffic and communication, much of which flows through the U.S., with one slide noting that "a target's phone call, email, or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path."

There are a total of 41 slides, one of which says the program operates with the "assistance of communications providers in the U.S.," though several top executives deny having knowledge of PRISM, The Guardian reports . Furthermore, some senior executives indicated that no direct access to servers has ever been offered to any government agency.

"We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis," Microsoft said in a statement. "In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

Other companies named above offered similar statements, though the leaked document containing the slides were pretty clear that the identities of those participating needed to be kept secret, lest they withdraw from the program if exposed.

"98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don't harm these sources," wrote the author of a separate but related classified report optained by The Washington Post .

One of the slides shows when each company joined the program, the first of which is Microsoft back in 2007. The most recent addition is Apple, which the slide shows joined the program in October 2012. It also reveals that the program costs $20 million to operate.

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