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The revelation that the US government is routinely snooping on internet data from firms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft has met with widespread outrage in the UK, with many concerned about a gross invasion of privacy and potential breaches of confidentiality.
According to classified documents leaked to newspapers, the US government has direct access to details of emails, chat sessions, social media posts and web searches, having used powers granted by Congress to access data from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple.
“Essentially anyone who participates in our interconnected world and uses popular services like Google or Skype can have their privacy violated through the Prism programme,” warned Mike Rispoli, a spokesman for Privacy International on its blog.
There has been widespread concern about the privacy implications for both individuals and businesses.
US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, attempted to draw the sting from some of the criticism, claiming the the monitoring, carried out under the auspices of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, would not be used to target US citizens.
“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats,” he said in a statement. “The unauthorised disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal programme is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
Such statements might appease some in the US but do little to assuage concerns in the UK, said Jim Killock, a director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), a civil liberties group focused on internet freedoms.
“Such a statement is intended to put American minds at rest. Where this leaves the rest of the world - including UK citizens, businesses, charities, MPs, campaigners and NGOs - is another matter,” he wrote on the ORG blog.
The UK government also has questions to answer over how much it knew of the Prism programme, Killock added.
“Would the government advise that UK citizens, businesses and MPs stop using services provided by [US] web companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft?” asked Killock. “Can the UK Government give assurance that the commercial confidentiality of UK businesses has not been breached through the Prism programme?”
Meanwhile, Apple has denied all knowledge Prism.
“We have never heard of Prism. 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," it said in a statement.
Microsoft, Google and Facebook were all also approached, but had not responded to request for comment at the time of writing.
“At this moment, companies are denying their knowledge of the Prism programme, which contradicts information contained in the leaked documents. However, it is possible that companies would not be aware of the government tapping into their servers,” said Privacy International's Rispoli. “Until we know whether this information was obtained through filters, interception, or some another method, it is difficult to know how the breadth of access the NSA has."
Loz Kaye, UK leader of the Pirate Party, expressed his shock at the reports.
“If these reports are accurate then it seems that the kind of secret, widespread and in-depth collection of data, with very little accountability and a lot of scope for abuse is already happening in the US,” he said. “What happens in the US concerns us all. Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook all appear to be caught in Obama's merciless prism.”