There is growing international unease, among some of the United States' closest traditional allies, over its National Security Agency's global snooping programme on international communications networks. In the United Kingdom, a political war of words has broken out and German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that she plans to discuss the NSA's controversial data surveillance programme with President Barack Obama during his visit to Berlin this week.
US intelligence director, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper,and the White House confirmed last week that the Obama administration was spying on the entire world.
The acknowledgement follows the leaking of a top secret document by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden, about a project code-named 'Prism'.
According to this document, in 2007 the NSA began seeking out direct access to servers belonging to American Internet companies on a wide scale. The first to come on board was Microsoft, followed by Yahoo half a year later. Then came Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL.
The most recent company to declare its willingness to co-operate was Apple, in October 2012.
The document states that this access to data is achieved "directly from the servers" of the companies.
The companies in question denied that claim on Friday. But if what the document says is true, as it now seems to be, the NSA has the potential to know what every person in the world is doing when they use the services of these companies.
One of the most controversial aspects of the programme is that while it is barely legal under US law by excluding American citizens, all citizens of other countries are treated as fair game. By implication, it also violates the privacy laws of many other countries, including America's European allies.
In the UK, Foreign Secretary William Hague was forced to give assurances that British intelligence agencies were not using information gathered by American spies to get around the UK’s anti-snooping laws.
A spokesperson for the German Justice Ministry said that talks were currently under way with US authorities. The discussions would include the implications for Germany and the "possible impairment of the rights of German citizens".
The German Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister, Ilse Aigner, has called for "clear answers" from the companies implicated in the document, and the German Green Party has demanded the government immediately investigate the circumstances of Prism.
"Total surveillance of all German citizens by the NSA is completely disproportionate," said Volker Beck, secretary of the Green Party group in parliament. The party has proposed that the topic be discussed at this week's parliamentary session.
It is, however, an open secret that intelligence and security agencies in both the UK and Germany often co-operate with the NSA and that exchanges of information take place.
The NSA’s collection centre south of Utah's Great Salt Lake stretches over 1 100 000 square feet and consists of huge buildings, some still under construction, housing super-fast computers.
At completion, the project will cost around $2 billion. It will have the capacity to store, for decades, at least five billion gigabytes of personal data on people from all over the world, including emails, Skype conversations, Google searches, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and bank transfers – in short, electronic data of every kind.
The NSA is estimated to have in the order of 400 000 employees and the facility has access to some 1 600 linguists who can be used in analysing international telecommunications.
The document leaked by Snowden shows that even data streams travelling from Europe to Asia, the Pacific region or South America often pass through servers in the US. "A target's phone call, email or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path," the document reads.
To be able to work meaningfully with the flood of information, use is made of the latest database technologies called 'big data', which make it possible to connect entirely disparate forms of data and analyse them automatically.
According to CIA director David Petraeus, the new form of data analysis is concerned with discovering "non-obvious relationships". This includes, for example, "finding connections between a purchase here, a phone call there, a grainy video, customs and immigration information".
Algorithms pick out connections automatically from the unstructured sea of data they trawl. "The CIA and our intelligence community partners must be able to swim in the ocean of big data."
Other side of the coin
While there are major concerns about the legally protected right to privacy of ordinary citizens, the other side of the coin is the state's obligation to protect its citizens.
According to Petraeus, the NSA’s research projects are about rendering people and their behaviour predictable. It aims to forecast, on the basis of data collected across the communications spectrum, when uprisings, social protests and other events will occur.
Legislation providing for a 'snoopers charter' in the UK is also surrounded in controversy over privacy concerns, and was ditched last month from the Queen’s Speech at the opening of parliament under pressure from deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Now, in a leaked letter to Clegg, UK director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer warns that terrorists will escape justice if the new Internet spying powers were to be ditched.
“For cases such as counterterrorism, organised crime and large-scale fraud, I would go so far as to say that communications data is so important that any reduction in capability would create a real risk to future prosecutions,” Starmer wrote.
In Germany, a 2007 bomb plot by an Islamist terrorist cell was discovered because of emails and telephone conversations that the NSA had monitored and passed along to its German counterparts.
The amount of digital data produced worldwide doubles every two years or so, and already far exceeds human ability to make any sense of it.
Eric Schmidt, the chairperson of Google, recently asked an audience what it thought of swallowing a pill that would beam information about our bodies to computers via Wi-Fi. There were nervous mutterings. “Too late,” he said, “it’s already being licensed.” We have not kept up with reality.
It is clear that technology has moved too fast for governments or lawmakers to keep up.
In a recent opinion piece following the Snowden revelations, Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, wrote: “At a very basic level, the danger is less that we will be oppressed and more that we – and states – will succumb to info overload. Whatever some politicians might say, it is no longer credible to talk of preventing the collection of data. What the latest revelations underscore, rather, is the question of what should be done with it.”