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PRISM whistleblower revealed as former CIA IT contractor

10 Jun 2013

The whisteblower who revealed details of mass internet surveillance by the US government has stepped out of the shadows.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor for government services firm Booz Allen Hamilton who worked at the CIA, said he felt compelled to leak top secret documents about the PRISM programme, having become appalled at the levels of intrusion.

"The NSA targets the communications of everyone," he said. "It ingests them by default. Any analyst at any time can target anyone."

Snowden conducted the interview with Guardian reporters from a Hong Kong hotel room, shown in full in the video below, where he has fled ostensibly over fears that the US government will come after him for the leaks.

The UK's GCHQ is said to be among the agencies benefitting from a massive US online monitoring operation.

The Guardian claims that the security agency is among those subscribing to PRISM, a data collection project which harvests data from the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook. The report cites documents which suggest that since 2010 GCHQ has used records harvested by PRISM in some 197 intelligence reports.

The documents make GCHQ the first known organisation tied to PRISM outside the US. Reports last week outing the program had listed the US FBI and other state agencies as the primary beneficiaries of the covert intelligence programme.

UK privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said on Friday that it is investigating the PRISM reports along with other European data bodies.

“There are real issues about the extent to which US law enforcement agencies can access personal data of UK and other European citizens. Aspects of US law under which companies can be compelled to provide information to US agencies potentially conflict with European data protection law, including the UK’s own Data Protection Act,” the body said in a statement issued late Friday. "The ICO has raised this with its European counterparts, and the issue is being considered by the European Commission, who are in discussions with the US government.”

For UK Pirate Party leader Loz Kaye, the news only furthers the need for concern over government surveillance.

"If GCHQ has access to this programme, then the government has some serious questions to answer. Like many, I was already concerned about the parallels between this US programme and the Snoopers' Charter," Kaye said.

"Now it seems the Communications Data Bill is the least of our worries - some of its desired, but denied, capabilities are already in place and have been since the coalition came to power."

The operation involves collecting data travelling through the US as part of a larger campaign to gather intelligence of international communications. The project was first reported by The Washington Post citing leaked government documents.

According to the reports, the PRISM archive collects and stores data from multiple US service providers including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Skype and Facebook. The collected information is then made available to US agencies for use in domestic and international investigations.

In the leaked documents, the agency notes that the archive is especially useful for overseas investigations as users will commonly rely on free or low-cost services which run through US companies.

According to the report, the PRISM programme goes back a number of years to programmes set up by the Bush administration to collect intelligence. The Washington Post alleges that members of congress have known about the archive for years but were prevented from disclosing the information.

Several of the companies named in the report have already been providing regular public reports on their government dealings. Google has long maintained a series of reports on government requests for data on users. The company reports that it declines most of those requests, and Google has denied all knowledge of PRISM.

Twitter, likewise, has begun disclosing its dealings with the US government. The company said that is has seen requests for customer information booming in recent years.

[This article was updated at 17.15 on Friday about the ICO and GCHQ, and again on Monday at 10am about the whistleblower]


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Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols is the US correspondent for He has been with the company since 2006, originally joining as a news intern at the site's San Francisco offices.

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