The National Security Agency logo is shown on a computer screen at the NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland on January 25, 2006 (© Brooks Kraft-Corbis)
The depth of the government's controversial cyber-snooping is far more extensive than originally thought.

According to reports in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post, the National Security Agency and the FBI are directly tapping into the servers of some of the world's largest tech companies, including Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL),  Yahoo (YHOO), AOL (AOL) and Microsoft (MSFT).

The companies told the newspapers they had no knowledge of such a program, which is separate from Thursday's revelations that a court had ordered Verizon (VZ)  to disclose data on millions of its customers. (Microsoft owns and publishes moneyNOW, an MSN Money site.)

Dubbed Prism, the program gives the government access to a trove of information, such as the content of emails, search histories, live chats and file transfers. It was started in the George W. Bush administration after the existence of the so-called warrantless wiretap program was unveiled in the press. Prism is aimed at communications that originated overseas.

Speaking to the press today, President Barack Obama argued that Prism is lawful and that members of Congress were properly briefed about it. The government isn't listening to people's phone calls, he said. But alarm bells sure are ringing.

An unusual alliance of libertarians, The New York Times, the ACLU and even former Vice President Al Gore have joined forces in condemning the Obama administration's efforts. Some critics have worried for years that these sorts of activities have been occurring.

In a strange twist, The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page is backing the administration, saying that "the data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties."

Of course, citizens will have to take the government's word that it's respecting their privacy. The ramifications are huge, given how much the government can learn about people just by examining their digital footprints.

"Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets -- anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we're gay or straight," the ACLU's Jay Stanley an Ben Wizner write in an op-ed for Reuters. "The suggestion that metadata is 'no big deal' -- a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law -- is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications."

The Obama administration will need to back its words about respecting the public's privacy with deeds, which as of yet haven't been forthcoming.

Jonathan Berr doesn't own shares of the listed stocks.  Follow him on Twitter@jdberr.


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