Weeks ago it was revealed that the government had been spying on Americans with help from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and other major tech companies. Those companies have since denied granting the government "direct access" to its servers.

Now the AP is reporting that PRISM--the massive data collection effort by the NSA--is actually just a small part of an even bigger wiretapping program by the U.S. government that has been in place for years. 

Americans who disapprove of the government reading their emails have more to worry about from a different and larger NSA effort that snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone. 

Tapping into those cables allows the NSA access to monitor emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more. It takes powerful computers to decrypt, store and analyze all this information, but the information is all there, zipping by at the speed of light.

The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified. But former U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer.

That means Americans' personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can't access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation. The government doesn't automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.

"I'm much more frightened and concerned about real-time monitoring on the Internet backbone," said EastBanc Technologies CEO Wolf Ruzicka. "I cannot think of anything, outside of a face-to-face conversation, that they could not have access to."

Long story short: We're fucked.

[via AP]