The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI regularly tap into the servers of nine major U.S. internet companies.
The reason: to collect audio and video chats, photos, emails, documents and connection logs, according to The Washington Post.
Private data is also being gathered by GCHQ, the UK's electronic eavesdropping and security agency, which has access to the U.S.-run program, according to The Guardian.
The surveillance program is code-named PRISM, and the new report comes on the heels of a similar story. Yesterday, The Guardian released a report alleging that the U.S. government collects the private phone records of millions of Americans from mobile provider Verizon.
Here's a quick rundown of the latest story.
What Is PRISM?
PRISM is a surveillance program, which The Post says it uncovered via a top-secret document. Until now, it's never been made public.
NSA analysts use PRISM to track foreign targets. The program gathers foreign communications traffic, much of which flows through U.S. servers even when it's sent from one foreign location to another.
The nine companies named in The Post's report are Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.
How Did The Post Find Out About It?
The Post report is partly based on a 41-slide presentation, dated April 2013, intended for senior NSA analysts. That's one of the slides above.
The piece also mentions unspecified "supporting materials."
What Is Data From PRISM Used For?
PRISM is a major source of information for U.S. intelligence agencies, according to The Post. PRISM data was reportedly used in 1,477 items in the President's Daily Brief last year, and one slide says "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" as its leading source of raw material.
In fact, nearly one in seven intelligence reports uses data from the PRISM program, according to the document.
Are These Internet Companies Knowingly Cooperating With PRISM?
Senior executives from some of the companies named in the report have "expressed surprise and shock and insisted that no direct access to servers had been offered to any government agency."
They also said they were "confused" by the NSA revelations, with an Apple spokesperson saying, "we have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any agency requesting customer data must get a court order."
How Has The U.S. Intelligence Community Responded?
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper issued a statement about the decision of The Post and The Guardian to do stories about PRISM:
"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.
"The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
The statement also says PRISM was created under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which prohibits U.S. agencies from using information "to intentionally target any U.S. citizen."
What Are People Saying About The Story?
Responses to the story vary from dismay at how far the NSA and FBI are going to secretly collect info, to support of this kind of intelligence-gathering. Here are a few opinion pieces on both sides.
NSA's PRISM Sounds Like A Darn Good Idea To Me: This Is What Governments Are For
Forbes contributor Tim Worstall writes "this is in fact what governments are supposed to do," and suggests that gathering intelligence to identify and track foreign enemies is "the first job" of the State.
He argues that this kind of intelligence gathering is objectionable when it is used against a state's citizens, but since PRISM forbids intelligence agencies from intentionally collecting data about U.S. citizens, he believes it is "entirely reasonable and sensible."
What does the PRISM logo mean?
The first question in this piece from The Guardian is: why does a top-secret $20 million spy initiative need a logo? Fair point.
But the symbolism, according to the post's author, is clear: "we collect the white light of the world's data - all of it - and refract it into an array of information we can use to keep America safe."
The piece also suggests the logo looks like something "a Bond villain might put on his website," and compares it to the U.S. government's Information Awareness Office logo.
PRISM Fallout: In Cloud We Don't Trust?
Brian Proffit of ReadWrite suggests the story of PRISM "will damage the reputation of the U.S. as a technology marketplace."
He points out that the focus on foreign information may lead people in other countries to hesitate before using U.S.-based public cloud providers, since their data may be collected by the NSA or FBI.
NSA PRISM Program: Is Big Data Turning Government Into 'Big Brother?'
Associated Press journalist Michael Liedtke looks at the implications of our new hyper-connected reality, thanks to smart phones and the internet, and how Big Data is helping to mine the information trails we all leave behind.
He suggests there are similarities between how private companies collect data to target users with customized ads and content, and the kind of surveillance in the PRISM program.
Because the U.S. government "controls the world's biggest data bank," Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck says, it has the potential to learn even more about what people are doing online than private companies do.