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The Surveillance Engine: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google

The National Security Agency is secretly providing data to nearly two dozen U.S. government agencies with a “Google-like” search engine built to share more than 850 billion records about phone calls, emails, cellphone locations, and internet chats, according to classified documents obtained by The Intercept.

The documents provide the first definitive evidence that the NSA has for years made massive amounts of surveillance data directly accessible to domestic law enforcement agencies. Planning documents for ICREACH, as the search engine is called, cite the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration as key participants.

ICREACH contains information on the private communications of foreigners and, it appears, millions of records on American citizens who have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Details about its existence are contained in the archive of materials provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Earlier revelations sourced to the Snowden documents have exposed a multitude of NSA programs for collecting large volumes of communications. The NSA has acknowledged that it shares some of its collected data with domestic agencies like the FBI, but details about the method and scope of its sharing have remained shrouded in secrecy.

Data available through ICREACH appears to be primarily derived from surveillance of foreigners’ communications, and planning documents show that it draws on a variety of different sources of data maintained by the NSA. Though one 2010 internal paper clearly calls it “the ICREACH database,” a U.S. official familiar with the system disputed that, telling The Intercept that while “it enables the sharing of certain foreign intelligence metadata,” ICREACH is “not a repository [and] does not store events or records.” Instead, it appears to provide analysts with the ability to perform a one-stop search of information from a wide variety of separate databases.

In a statement to The Intercept, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that the system shares data that is swept up by programs authorized under Executive Order 12333, a controversial Reagan-era presidential directive that underpins several NSA bulk surveillance operations that monitor communications overseas. The 12333 surveillance takes place with no court oversight and has received minimal Congressional scrutiny because it is targeted at foreign, not domestic, communication networks. But the broad scale of 12333 surveillance means that some Americans’ communications get caught in the dragnet as they transit international cables or satellites—and documents contained in the Snowden archive indicate that ICREACH taps into some of that data.

Legal experts told The Intercept they were shocked to learn about the scale of the ICREACH system and are concerned that law enforcement authorities might use it for domestic investigations that are not related to terrorism.

“To me, this is extremely troublesome,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. “The myth that metadata is just a bunch of numbers and is not as revealing as actual communications content was exploded long ago—this is a trove of incredibly sensitive information.”

Brian Owsley, a federal magistrate judge between 2005 and 2013, said he was alarmed that traditional law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the DEA were among those with access to the NSA’s surveillance troves.

“This is not something that I think the government should be doing,” said Owsley, an assistant professor of law at Indiana Tech Law School. “Perhaps if information is useful in a specific case, they can get judicial authority to provide it to another agency. But there shouldn’t be this buddy-buddy system back-and-forth.”

Jeffrey Anchukaitis, an ODNI spokesman, declined to comment on a series of questions from The Intercept about the size and scope of ICREACH, but said that sharing information had become “a pillar of the post-9/11 intelligence community” as part of an effort to prevent valuable intelligence from being “stove-piped in any single office or agency.”

Using ICREACH to query the surveillance data, “analysts can develop vital intelligence leads without requiring access to raw intelligence collected by other IC [Intelligence Community] agencies,” Anchukaitis said. “In the case of NSA, access to raw signals intelligence is strictly limited to those with the training and authority to handle it appropriately. The highest priority of the intelligence community is to work within the constraints of law to collect, analyze and understand information related to potential threats to our national security.”
One-Stop Shopping

The mastermind behind ICREACH was recently retired NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, who outlined his vision for the system in a classified 2006 letter to the then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. The search tool, Alexander wrote, would “allow unprecedented volumes of communications metadata to be shared and analyzed,” opening up a “vast, rich source of information” for other agencies to exploit. By late 2007 the NSA reported to its employees that the system had gone live as a pilot program.

The NSA described ICREACH as a “one-stop shopping tool” for analyzing communications. The system would enable at least a 12-fold increase in the volume of metadata being shared between intelligence community agencies, the documents stated. Using ICREACH, the NSA planned to boost the amount of communications “events” it shared with other U.S. government agencies from 50 billion to more than 850 billion, bolstering an older top-secret data sharing system named CRISSCROSS/PROTON, which was launched in the 1990s and managed by the CIA.

To allow government agents to sift through the masses of records on ICREACH, engineers designed a simple “Google-like” search interface. This enabled analysts to run searches against particular “selectors” associated with a person of interest—such as an email address or phone number—and receive a page of results displaying, for instance, a list of phone calls made and received by a suspect over a month-long period. The documents suggest these results can be used reveal the “social network” of the person of interest—in other words, those that they communicate with, such as friends, family, and other associates.

Why it makes sense for Amazon to buy Twitch

Today came the surprising news that Amazon will acquire Twitch, a startup best known for live streaming video games. The company has since confirmed the news, and a press release states Amazon will pay $970 million in cash. At first glance this marriage doesn’t make a lot of sense. Amazon isn’t well known as a gaming service and its video offerings are principally from film and television studios, not user-generated content. But when you look at where these two companies are trying to go, not where they currently sit, the combination of Amazon and Twitch could be genius.

Amazon has been courting the gaming market for a while

Gamers were upset when it was reported back in May that Google was acquiring Twitch, the video game streaming platform, and planning to integrate with YouTube. The service was tightly linked with the gaming community and many were worried about how it would fare inside a big corporate parent. But it was hard to argue with the billion-dollar price tag, and in a lot of ways Twitch and YouTube were already forming a perfect complement to one another, with Twitch the best choice for live streams of video games, but most archived videos performing best over time on YouTube.

Amazon is clearly very keen to get into gaming. It created its in-house gaming studio back in 2012 and has made a few lightweight Facebook and mobile games since then. It signaled it was getting more serious with the acquisition of Killer Instinct developer Double Helix Games and hiring of Kim Swift, the designer behind the classic Portal game. The company’s new Fire TV offered a selection of games created by Amazon’s in-house team and even has a Amazon joystick you can buy separately, hinting at aspirations to compete with consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation. The company already sells everything under the sun, so it only makes sense for them to add games to the books, films, and TV shows they offer, but getting the love and respect of that community is tough. Twitch has gamer support in spades. According to a source familiar with the deal, Amazon is the biggest digital distributor of games after Valve’s Steam store, and it believes Twitch could help it to capture even more of that market.

Twitch needed a big partner to support its growth

For Twitch, being acquired was always about finding a partner that could help it keep up with its massive growth. As The Verge reported back in May, Twitch was being offered hundreds of millions in new funding from its previous investors, but felt that it simply couldn’t scale with capital alone. It needed a company with global infrastructure already in place that it could piggyback on. YouTube certainly fit the bill. But Amazon, with its Amazon Web Services (AWS), also has the kind of international presence to ensure Twitch can stream live video to millions across every continent. Twitch in turn could be the live-streaming platform that powers everything from gaming to concerts to sporting events that play on Amazon’s family of Fire devices.

Speaking with The Verge, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear said AWS was also attractive because it is already used by so many game developers. “As we saw with Twitch Plays Pokemon, there is an appetite for new games created around our platform. So many developers are already running AWS, it’s a very attractive thing for us to be close to.”

Increasingly, Twitch was also running into licensing issues as it grew in size. In recent weeks it’s made changes to the way it handles in-game music, muting a lot of copyrighted background tracks when it doesn’t have agreements in place to cover for archived video. YouTube has dealt with this issue a lot, and certainly seemed like the perfect partner to ensure a broad licensing deal. Amazon doesn’t have the same experience dealing with numerous copyright claims against user-generated content, but it does have the deep pocketbooks and relationships in place with the big record labels who appear on its streaming music service. “Amazon has built relationships with the big players in media, and that is very attractive for us,” says Shear. “There are a lot of important partnerships there for Twitch that might have taken years to to forge on our own.”

Why would Twitch choose Amazon over Google? It wasn’t the money, with Amazon’s purchase price being equal or less than Google’s reported offer. Shear wouldn’t answer that question directly, but did provide detail on why Amazon was the best fit. “One of the things that really stood out about Amazon was their approach to acquisitions. We will be a wholly owned subsidiary and and I will remain CEO,” said Shear. “They have a long term vision about how to create big opportunities in the future by investing today.”

Reading between the lines a little, it sounds like Twitch felt at Google, it would have always been YouTube’s little brother. At Amazon, it has the chance to build something from scratch, as Amazon has no user-generated or live video offerings yet. A source familiar with the deal suggested Twitch felt Amazon would give it more autonomy and bigger role in growing the gaming business.

This deal could radically shift the landscape of live video. With both Twitch and YouTube, Google would have huge stakes in two of the biggest, fastest-growing user-generated video platforms on earth. Given Jeff Bezos’ ambitions, it’s no surprise he’s willing to pay nearly a billion dollars to remain a contender for that future. Luckily for him, Amazon’s reputation for sacrificing profits in favor of ambitious bets convinced Twitch the house of Bezos was the best place to keep building.

Amazon Pounces On Twitch After Google Balks Due To Antitrust Concerns

In May, Variety first reported that Google GOOGL -0.33% was in talks to acquire video game streaming company Twitch for more than $1 billion. Three months later, that deal is dead and Amazon.com AMZN +0.73%confirmed on Monday that it’s purchasing Twitch for approximately $970 million in cash.

Google was unable to close the deal, said sources familiar with the talks, because it was concerned about potential antitrust issues that could have come with the acquisition. The Mountain View, Calif. company already owns YouTube, the world’s most-visited content streaming site, which competes with Twitch to broadcast and stream live or on-demand video game sessions. One source noted that because of the concerns, Google and Twitch could not come to an agreement on the size of a potential breakup fee in case the deal did not go through.

Representatives at Twitch could not be immediately reached for comment while representatives at Google declined to comment.

“Twitch has built a platform that brings together tens of millions of people who watch billions of minutes of games each month– from The International, to breaking the world record for Mario, to gaming conferences like E3,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a press release. “Like Twitch, we obsess over customers and like to think differently, and we look forward to learning from them and helping them move even faster to build new services for the gaming community.”

Neither Twitch nor Google ever publicly confirmed that it was in acquisition talks, but various publications confirmed the deal was pretty much sealed last month. Monday’s reports suggest that was far from the case, as Amazon looks to add to a growing media empire that it’s established with several online television shows and a set-top content streaming box, Fire TV, launched in April.
Amazon is not known for making large acquisitions and a deal for Twitch could rank as largest in its 20 year history. That record was held previously by the company’s purchase of Zappos, which came in at around $850 million at the time the acquisition was announced in July 2009. With add ons, Amazon could potentially pay up to $1.1 billion for Twitch when the deal closes, which is expected to happen in the second half of 2014.

Missing out on Twitch, which now has about 50 million monthly viewers, would represent another high-profile acquisition miss by Google. The company also pursued mobile messenger WhatsApp before it was bought by Facebook for $19 billion in February. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was also looking to buy music streaming service Spotify for around $5 billion before it got cold feet over the the final price.

Having faced a number of antitrust inquiries in its home country and abroad with regards to its search technology, Google has to feel like it’s “prone to being under a microscope” said Geoffrey Manne, executive director of the International Center for Law and Economics. Manne noted that it was not a foregone conclusion that the two companies–one, whose subsidiary mainly deals with video clips, and the other, which deals with live streaming of video game sessions–were in direct competition. However, he speculated that Google simply wanted to be cautious, possibly thinking that any deal was a bigger risk than its acquisition target and therefore arguing for a lower “kill fee.”

While some reported that a deal between Twitch and Google was practically complete, Bessemer Ventures Partners’ Ethan Kurzweil, who led his firm’s investment in Twitch and sits on its board, denied that was the case. While Google was one of the first to approach the company about the deal, Kurzweil noted that there were other suitors involved after Twitch fielded the initial interest from the search giant. BVP led by Kurzweil and David Cowan explored other possibilities and hired notable Silicon Valley banker Frank Quattrone of Qatalyst Partners to open up acquisition talks with other companies.

“A lot of people were interested but Amazon offered the best deal,” said Kurzweil, who did not name the other interested parties.
While Monday’s press release from Amazon heaped praise on Twitch’s dominance of online video game broadcasting, Kurzweil speculated that the Seattle company’s interest will expand far beyond gaming and possibly into the online streaming of other activities.

“We think that Amazon is investing here in Internet infrastructure and something more than gaming media,” he said. “What Twitch has really built here is a video-based community around any activity… You have to ask Amazon what kinds of plans they have for that kind of investment, but if you look at technical assets in the company it goes beyond the gaming vertical.”

Update August 25, 2014 at 3:40 pm PT: An earlier version of this post suggested that Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch would be the second-largest in its history behind the 2009 acquisition of Zappos. At the time of its announcement in July 2009, Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos was pegged to be about $850 million, though that amount rose as Amazon’s stock price increased. In comparing the acquisition prices at the times of their announcements, Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch at $970 million is slightly larger than its purchase of Zappos.

Amazon acquiring Twitch for $970M in cash

EATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Aug. 25, 2014– Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced that it has reached an agreement to acquire Twitch Interactive, Inc., the leading live video platform for gamers. In July, more than 55 million unique visitors viewed more than 15 billion minutes of content on Twitch produced by more than 1 million broadcasters, including individual gamers, pro players, publishers, developers, media outlets, conventions and stadium-filling esports organizations.

“Broadcasting and watching gameplay is a global phenomenon and Twitch has built a platform that brings together tens of millions of people who watch billions of minutes of games each month – from The International, to breaking the world record for Mario, to gaming conferences like E3. And, amazingly, Twitch is only three years old,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com. “Like Twitch, we obsess over customers and like to think differently, and we look forward to learning from them and helping them move even faster to build new services for the gaming community.”

“Amazon and Twitch optimize for our customers first and are both believers in the future of gaming,” said Twitch CEO Emmett Shear. “Being part of Amazon will let us do even more for our community. We will be able to create tools and services faster than we could have independently. This change will mean great things for our community, and will let us bring Twitch to even more people around the world.”

Twitch launched in June 2011 to focus exclusively on live video for gamers. Under the terms of the agreement, which has been approved by Twitch’s shareholders, Amazon will acquire all of the outstanding shares of Twitch for approximately $970 million in cash, as adjusted for the assumption of options and other items. Subject to customary closing conditions, the acquisition is expected to close in the second half of 2014.

About Amazon.com

Amazon opened on the World Wide Web in July 1995. The company is guided by three principles: customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, and long-term thinking. Customer reviews, 1-Click shopping, personalized recommendations, Prime, Fulfillment by Amazon, AWS, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kindle, Fire phone, Fire tablets, and Fire TV are some of the products and services pioneered by Amazon.

About Twitch

Twitch is the leading live video platform and community for gamers where more than 55 million have gathered to broadcast, watch and talk about video games. Twitch’s video platform is the backbone of both live and on-demand distribution for the entire video game ecosystem. This includes game developers, publishers, media outlets, events, user generated content and the entire esports scene. In February 2014, The Wall Street Journal ranked Twitch as the 4th largest website in terms of peak internet traffic in the U.S., fortifying the brand as an entertainment industry leader and the epicenter of social video for gamers. For more information, visit: www.twitch.tv

Forward-Looking Statements

This announcement contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Actual results may differ significantly from management’s expectations. These forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties that include, among others, risks related to competition, management of growth, new products, services and technologies, potential fluctuations in operating results, international expansion, outcomes of legal proceedings and claims, fulfillment and data center optimization, seasonality, commercial agreements, acquisitions and strategic transactions, foreign exchange rates, system interruption, inventory, government regulation and taxation, payments and fraud. More information about factors that potentially could affect Amazon.com’s financial results is included in Amazon.com’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including its most recent Annual Report on Form 10-K and subsequent filings.

today that it would be getting the 5-inch Aquos Crystal smartphone

, a new mid-range device unlike anything else in Sprint’s or other US carrier lineups. Oh, and it’s going to sell for a measly $239 without a contract (or $10 per month with Sprint’s Easy Pay plan or $149.99 on Sprint’s prepaid Boost or Virgin brands). The star of the show is the Aquos Crystal’s 5-inch, 720p edge-to-edge display. There is virtually no bezel surrounding the screen, making it the first smartphone we can truly call “edge-to-edge”. It’s remarkable to see in pictures, but in person, it looked like something taken straight out of a science fiction movie set. I couldn’t stop looking at the screen — it’s really that striking. It reminds me of an infinity pool that has no edge. But there is an edge here, and it’s beveled and sharp. The Aquos Crystal is a little thicker than most smartphones today, but it has a matte plastic back that’s slightly dimpled (but not as dimpled as Samsung’s Galaxy S5). It feels less premium than an HTC One or iPhone 5S, but I can’t say it feels cheap by any means. It’s also much smaller than you expect a 5-inch smartphone to be because of its edge-to-edge display. The Aquos Crystal runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat with minimal to no interface modifications. Sprint is including a couple of new software features on it, including a gesture-based screenshot tool and App Pass, a subscription based app service. Similar to a “Netflix for apps,” App Pass costs $4.99 per month and provides unlimited access to a number of premium apps, including games and productivity tools. It also includes $5 of in-app purchase credit that can be used in the apps downloaded from the App Pass store. Those looking for premium smartphone specifications won’t be impressed by the Aquos Crystal’s 1.2GHz quad-core processor, 1.5GB of RAM, or 8GB of storage (there is a microSD card slot to expand on the internal storage). But otherwise, the Crystal has all of Sprint’s latest features, including HD voice, Wi-Fi calling, Harmon Kardon audio enhancements, and support for its faster Spark LTE network. And for its price point, the Crystal is really offering a lot on paper. THE AQUOS CRYSTAL’S FEATURES AND DESIGN BELIE ITS BARGAIN BIN PRICE Talking on a phone with no bezel and no apparent earpiece is a little odd, but you hold the Aquos Crystal up to your ear in the same way you hold any other phone (no, you don’t have to turn it upside-down to talk). Because nearly the entire front is display, it lacks a proximity sensor, but Sharp’s software will lock the display when on calls so you don’t accidentally press buttons with your ear. I didn’t have enough time with the device to truly test out how well it handles inadvertant swipes from the edge with my thumb, but we’ll be sure to put that through its paces when we have a review unit in. Sprint also introduced a new family plan this week that offers 20GB of data for the same price that AT&T and Verizon provided 10GB. And for a limited time, new customers can sign up for a $100 per month plan that covers 10 lines with unlimited text and calls and 20GB of data to share. Each line on the promo plan also receives 2GB of extra data until the end of 2015. Pair that with the Aquos Crystal, and Sprint suddenly just became an attractive value for a lot of people, provided it offers coverage where they live. Sprint isn’t saying exactly when the Aquos Crystal will be available, but it says we should expect it in the near future. We’re looking forward to spending some more time with it, but until then, check out some more pictures below.