The U.S. intelligence community has been working with "thousands" of companies in key sectors of the economy to trade sensitive information on cybersecurity, including classified data, in ways that go beyond the revelations dropped by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden earlier this month.
At least one of these companies, Microsoft, alerts the government to bugs in its own software products before it issues a public patch, according to Bloomberg News, allowing Washington to exploit those vulnerabilities in unpatched foreign systems for intelligence purposes:
Makers of hardware and software, banks, Internet security providers, satellite telecommunications companies, and many other companies also participate in the government programs. In some cases, the information gathered may be used not just to defend the nation but to help infiltrate computers of its adversaries.
Other information provided to the government includes metadata about which version of a given program a target computer may be running, knowledge that lets investigators hack in more easily. In exchange, Bloomberg reports, companies receive highly valuable classified information.
Companies may also be granting the government access to data stored on servers overseas—in which case, Washington doesn't need a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order.
Even before Snowden leaked his top secret slide deck on PRISM, we've always known that a program like the one Bloomberg describes has existed. The Homeland Security Department operates something called the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services, which is a voluntary information-sharing program that partners with the private sector. In February, the Obama administration publicly expanded the scope of ECS with a landmark executive order on cybersecurity.
In that directive, the president instructed ECS to cover "all" critical infrastructure sectors, as well as companies that "offer security services" to critical infrastructure operators.
It's not clear whether the information Bloomberg's talking about is being transferred to the feds under ECS's auspices. If it is, then this is nothing new and simply additional insight into a known process. If it is not, then that raises other questions. Some are already alleging that this is PRISM 2.0. I don't think we have the evidence for that just yet.
Update: The information-sharing identified by Bloomberg is not covered under the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services program, a DHS official confirmed. The official wouldn't say whether the data-gathering is part of the PRISM program.