Amid the controversy over the National Security Agency's mass collection of the digital data of American citizens, new reports claim the NSA has also asked internet providers and websites for their users' passwords.
According to CNET, two inside sources claim the NSA has asked companies such as AOL, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Verizon to hand over their users' passwords. One of the sources assured CNET that these companies have "pushed back" against the NSA's demands, and an anonymous spokesperson from Microsoft has gone as far as to say they "can't see a circumstance" in which they would divulge users' passwords.
In addition to passwords, the NSA has also asked for encryption keys and a form of code known as "salt." A salt is a random line of numbers and letters used to make passwords more difficult to crack. It remains unclear, however, whether the NSA is targeting specific individuals or hopes to conduct mass data collections if it is part of their "dragnet" approach to mass data collecting.
The password requests have seemingly become a line drawn in the sand for internet providers after it was revealed that both Verizon and AT&T had willingly turned over phone records to the NSA. Part of this refusal stems from the potential illegality of what is essentially government-sponsored hacking into the personal accounts of internet users. There is no legal precedent for this type of case, because it has never been seen before.
In the event the NSA uses someone's password in order to gain access to their account, it would need approval from the secret government court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society. On the other hand, Granick also believes impersonating a user could be in violation of the Stored Communications Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Conversely, George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr shrugs off Granick's opinion that any federal law would be violated, as according to him, it is legal for the police to impersonate someone so long as they do so under court supervision as per the Wiretap Act. Despite the questions over the legal implications, it appears that the NSA has made these requests regardless of any reservations on their part.
These revelations come to light almost immediately after Congress voted down a bill that would defund the NSA's mass surveillance on American citizens. The Amash-Coyers bill fell in the House by a 12 vote margin, 217-205.