Nightly News   |  January 27, 2014

British Spies Can Snoop on Social Media, Documents Reveal

NBC News has obtained documents Edward Snowden leaked before he came to Russia showing how British intelligence agencies analyze YouTube videos, Facebook ‘likes’ and tweets

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> tonight, nbc news has exclusively obtained top secret documents revealing just how intrusive spying can be on some of the most widely used areas on social media , including facebook . revealing a covert program that allows spies to tap into data and might give them insight into future events. nbc 's stephanie gosk has been looking into the documents, and joins us from moscow .

>> reporter: brian, edward snowden remains in exile here in moscow , working with the freelance journalist, nbc news obtained documents that snowden leaked before he came to russia, the documents show how the u.s. and british intelligence agencies analyzed youtube and facebook elements, including tweet, it is a privacy issue that advocates are condemning. egypt didn't see it coming, western spies missed it, too, the arab spring, one of the most dramatic revolutions in modern day was basically a surprise. fast forward to the one-year anniversary, a much smaller demonstration in the gulf nation of bahrain, intelligence officials had little ability to predict the rally before they took to the street. how? documents obtained by nbc news, on any given day british spies are able to specifically tap into social media to see what is being looked at and where. on february 13th , 2012 , these two youtube clips suddenly became popular, an on-line heads-up that another rally was in the works. the two giants, facebook and google, had no idea they were snooping.

>> before, they could be collected through human spies on the ground, today, social media and the like are critical to understanding social movements .

>> reporter: the documents leaked by edward snowden and obtained by nbc news included a top element of a pilot program , regarding the british equivalent of nsa, the slide shows how spies are able to tap into fishbein optic cables, and they analyze the information to answer critical questions, none of the data is gathered within the u.s. sources say, but americans who use these websites overseas may have their on-line activity monitored. the nsa says they operate within the law and don't spy on the civil activities of americans, civil liberties groups, among others are alarmed.

>> it is one thing to spy on a particular person who has done something to warrant an investigation, but governments have no business monitoring the facebook information of hundreds of users.

>> reporter: for those who worry about hackers, protecting user information from governments represents a much more daunting security challenge.

>> governments get access to the pike. that is, governments can tap into the network infrastructure that is carrying all the data.

>> reporter: they would neither confirm nor deny any element of this report. facebook has only recently begun encrypting data about what people like on the site. experts we've spoken to say they worry that government intelligence -gathering on this scale could erode worldwide trust on the internet as a whole. the debate about the right balance between national security and privacy rages on. brian?

>> stephanie gosk with our exclusive reporting tonight out of moscow ,