The U.S. intelligence community has begun secretly collecting email metadata for law enforcement purposes, the first such program disclosed in a public disclosure by The Intercept.
The program, known as PRISM, is the first time the agency has sought to secretly collect email metadata from email providers and other third parties.
According to a recent report by the U.K. government’s intelligence oversight body, the government “has been intercepting communications related to the U-2 spy plane program since the early 1990s, in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the Government to obtain a court order for the data collection.”
In a statement, the agency said that it is notifying providers of PRISM surveillance programs that they should be in compliance with the law.
“As we have said many times before, the collection of metadata is necessary to ensure the timely collection of intelligence,” said a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Intercept reported earlier this month that the government had secretly collected the data from AT&T, Comcast, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft, as well as companies like Apple and Twitter.
“In some instances, we have been collecting data from multiple providers at the same time, as this has the effect of compounding our collection,” said the NSA spokesperson in a statement.
The revelations came as Congress debated a new cybersecurity bill that would allow for more government surveillance.
The bill, known by its code name PRISM-20, has passed through two committees, but is still under review by the full House and Senate.
“The intelligence community is conducting a national security investigation of PRISMA-20,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told reporters on Tuesday.
“If it turns out that PRISM is not being used for the legitimate purpose of protecting the American people, then we will have to ask the Department of Justice to conduct a review of PRISA.”
The Intercept reports that PRISA would authorize the National Security Agency to intercept communications, including phone calls, email and text messages, from companies like AT&am, Google and Facebook.
The surveillance would not be limited to specific targets or individuals, but would be conducted without warrants.
The new law would also allow the government to intercept the content of emails, text messages and voice calls.
“This law will have a devastating effect on our constitutional freedoms, including our ability to fight terrorism,” Schiff said in a letter to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), earlier this year.
The NSA declined to comment on the news.
“PRISM is a new program that the intelligence community developed and developed without the approval of Congress,” the agency’s spokesperson said in an email to The Intercept, adding that “the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use this information to gather intelligence that is useful to them and to protect the public.”
The NSA spokesperson added that the new legislation would “provide more flexibility for the intelligence agencies to collect data and information on millions of innocent people who have nothing to do with terrorism, and who do not pose a threat to the United States.”