National security and the internet: breaking down the Prism program

Emerging details of the National Security Association’s “Prism” program show that the federal government has direct access to social media and search engine data including that of Facebook and Google. The program is an anti-terrorist measure aimed at monitoring users located outside the US. The top-secret program was leaked by former NSA technical assistant Edward Snowden to The Guardian.

First page of the leaked Powerpoint, courtesy of The Guardian. Screenshot by Geena De Rose/Gavel Media.

First page of the leaked Powerpoint, courtesy of The Guardian.

The Leak

Snowden sent The Guardian a 41-page Powerpoint presentation from April 2013 outlining the details of the program.

Snowden told The Guardian the leak was made to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," in the hopes of encouraging further debate.

A leaked slide from the NSA Powerpoint of the Prism program, courtesy of The Guardian. Screenshot by Geena De Rose/Gavel Media.

A leaked slide from the NSA Powerpoint of the Prism program, courtesy of The Guardian.

 

 

The Details

The Prism program purportedly allows the government to directly access social media and search engine data in order to monitor non-US users. Most notable is the inclusion of Apple, Google and Facebook in the program’s scope.

According to the leaked document, The Guardian reports that the program is made to collect “material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats."

Although the websites are required by law to hand over certain data to the government when solicited, the idea of direct access to their records is a unique one.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed during the Bush administration and renewed in December of 2012, provided similar access to information of users outside the US. The NSA found FISA to be restrictive, as it required warrants for every inquiry. When the bill was revised in 2012, the bar to initiating surveillance was lowered to those “reasonably believed” to be living outside the US.

Explanation of the Prism program to NSA workers, courtesy of The Guardian. Screenshot by Geena De Rose/Gavel Media.

Explanation of the Prism program to NSA workers, courtesy of The Guardian.

The Prism program, in contrast, does not require the consent of the site nor confirmation of the foreign status of the user in order to begin surveillance.

The NSA also claims that the targeted websites are aware of their participation in the program. Since its initiation in 2007, the program has accrued nine major internet communications companies, according to the leaked Powerpoint.

The Denial

The targeted websites, however, have denied knowledge of the program and assure their users that their information is safely guarded.

These denials have caused some to speculate that the program may operate through interception of communication cables instead of directly accessing the sites’ information.

gavel3-300x300The Reaction

In defense:

  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper defended the program as being “vital to keeping the nation and our allies safe.” He also emphasized that the program only applies to users outside the US and that it is authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and is overseen by all three branches of the federal government.

Check out the director of national intelligence's fact sheet here.

  • President Obama also defended the program in a press conference at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, CA: “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls… what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."

In opposition:

Senator Mark Udall. Photo courtesy of sinisterminister/Wikimedia Commons.

Senator Mark Udall.
Photo courtesy of sinisterminister/Wikimedia Commons.

  • Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future, offered his thoughts to The Guardian. "These companies are denying that they give direct access to their servers, but what they have created is a complex legal and technological mechanism that amounts to the same thing…This makes it too easy for the government agencies. There is tremendous potential for abuse here,” he said.
  • Senator Mark Udall, a Senate intelligence committee member, told ABC's This Week, "My main concern is that Americans don't know the extent to which they are being surveilled…We hear this term metadata which has to do with where you make calls, when you make calls, who you are talking to. I think that's private information."
A leaked slide shows the companies which have agreed to cooperate with the program, courtesy of The Guardian. Screenshot by Geena De Rose/Gavel Media.

A leaked slide shows the companies which have agreed to cooperate with the program, courtesy of The Guardian.

Claims of innocence:

  • In a blog post, Google co-founder Larry Paige and chief legal officer David Drummond wrote: “First, we have not joined any program that would give the US government – or any other government – direct access to our servers. Indeed, the US government does not have direct access or a 'back door' to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called Prism until yesterday."
  • Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also reacted with surprise. "Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of Prism before yesterday,” he said.

Details are expected to continue emerging in relation to the program's details, the complicity of social media and the extent of the program.

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