By Michael Winter, Kevin Johnson, Scott Martin and Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO - Under watch from the National Security Agency and the FBI, Internet traffic is being closely monitored by Silicon Valley Internet giants in a massive data-snooping agreement.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are siphoning personal data from the main computer servers of nine major U.S. Internet firms, The Washington Post and the London-based Guardian reported Thursday night.
PRISM's existence was confirmed to USA TODAY Thursday night by a senior administration official and another official with knowledge of some aspects of the program. One official said the program is subject to a similar type of oversight as in other secret surveillance programs, including the newly disclosed NSA phone records mining.
The senior official emphasized that, as the law authorizing the surveillance requires, the program does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person in the United States.
The senior official said there are extensive procedures to ensure that only people outside the United States are targeted, and that the procedures minimize how much information on U.S. citizens may be collected or kept.
The agencies are grabbing data from the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, according to the documents. The cloud storage device Dropbox was described as "coming soon," along with other unidentified firms.
"We have never heard of PRISM," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said in a written statement. "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."
Google denied participating in the program and said it is trying to find out more about it.
In a statement, the search giant said it "cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data."
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
The surveillance program, dubbed PRISM and reportedly in existence since 2007, has not been publicly disclosed by the government agencies.
Documents intended for senior analysts within the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate describe an internal presentation on the covert Silicon Valley operation, according to the Post.
The Post writes that the agencies are "extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time."
PalTalk has hosted "significant traffic" during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and the Syrian civil war, the Post notes.
The operation was approved by special federal judges under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Some members of Congress knew of the operation but could not comment.
The program was outlined in a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation intended for senior intelligence analysts. It was classified top secret "with no distribution to foreign allies," the Guardian writes.
The Post says the technology companies are knowingly participating in the secret program, but the Guardian reports that all denied knowledge of the spying, even though the presentation "claims the program is run with the assistance of the companies."
The Guardian says Microsoft was the first to participate, starting in December 2007. It says Yahoo joined In 2008, followed by Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009; YouTube in 2010; Skype and AOL in 2011; and Apple last year.
The revelation comes a day after the Guardian reported that the FISA court had ordered Verizon to turn over call information to the NSA.