US spies are secretly tapping into servers of nine Internet giants, including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google in a vast anti-terror sweep targeting foreigners, reports said on Thursday.
Stung by a dizzying 24 hours of revelations on covert programs, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper slammed disclosure of information about the scheme, and warned that leaks about a separate program to mine domestic telephone records hurt US national security.
Meanwhile, the White House, facing a fast-escalating controversy over the scale and scope of secret surveillance programs, denied spying on Americans, but insisted it must use every tool available to keep the US homeland safe.
The Washington Post, citing a career intelligence officer, said the US National Security Agency (NSA) had direct access to Internet firm servers, to track an individual’s Web presence via audio, video, photographs and e-mails.
Some of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley were caught up in the program, known as PRISM, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, PalTalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube, the reports said.
The Washington Post said the leak came from a career intelligence officer “with firsthand experience of these systems and horror at their capabilities.”
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer was quoted as saying.
However, Internet giants denied opening their doors to US spy agencies.
“We have never heard of PRISM,” Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said.
“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.
Facebook’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan said the huge social network did not provide any access to government organizations.
Google and Microsoft were also adamant that they only disclose what is legally demanded.
In response to the reports, also carried by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the White House said Americans were not being spied on, but did not deny the program existed.
“It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-US persons outside the US are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about US persons,” an official said.