In the ongoing discussion of PRISM and the NSA's data-collection tactics, much debate has raged over the phrase "direct access," as companies have denied allowing the government unfettered access to their data and servers. Now the Washington Post is reporting that while the access may not be constant, it is very much at the government's control. Companies have evidently set up secure portals outside their own servers, which is accessed at the NSA's discretion and even without the knowledge of the company in question.
From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may "task" the system and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.
The nature of these queries, of course, is largely still unknown. The PRISM system is apparently engaged by NSA employees, whose queries are routed through the FBI's surveillance unit before being passed through to Google, Facebook, and a handful of other companies. Only a few high-level executives at each company in question were even aware of PRISM's existence, the Post says, a handful of which once again confirmed the existence of the program.
Of course, nearly every one of these points has been categorically denied by the tech companies in question, from the existence of the remote drop-boxes to their participation in PRISM as a whole. But the difference between unrestricted access and direct access appears to be ever more important, along with the difference between a company's servers and the servers a company maintains for the government.