Caught In The PRISM

Posted June 7th, 2013 at 2:29 pm (UTC-4)

The NSA’s Internet Surveillance Program And You

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

This has not been a good week for keeping secrets.

Late Wednesday, it was revealed that America’s National Security Agency, or NSA, got secret court permission to access millions of telephone records of the Verizon telecommunications company’s domestic customers.  The following day, the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine Internet and computer service firms, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Skype, have been voluntarily providing the NSA with access to their data, allowing the NSA to monitor and analyze emails, photos and video chats from around the world as part of a program known as PRISM.

This undated US government photo shows an aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” (AP Photo/US Government)

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that ” people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone call data from AT&T…and Sprint Nextel records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.”  Sensing a good fight, the group called Anonymous has jumped in as well, posting online what appear to be 13 secret U.S. documents that suggest data gathered through PRISM is being shared with the NSA’s “intelligence partners” – meaning the security and intelligence services of other governments. 

“Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” tweeted former presidential candidate Al Gore. Judging by the outrage across social media platforms this week, the answer would be no.

Secrets Protecting Secrets

It’s no surprise the NSA has been aggressively collecting electronic data – that’s its job. For 61 years, the secretive intelligence agency – often dubbed “No Such Agency” for it’s lack of transparency – has monitored all manner of phone calls, radio signals, emails, texts and other electronic communications in the interests of national security.

However, for much of its history the NSA has been limited to collecting foreign communications only. Domestic surveillance strictly illegal.  To ensure compliance, in 1978 Congress passed the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act”, which in turn created a secret FISC, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that the NSA would have to appear before anytime it wanted a warrant to monitor domestic communications.

The idea was that the court would provide strict privacy protection for U.S. citizens. In practice — perhaps because all its actions are secret and that only the government may appear before the court, or because the very nature of Internet traffic knows no national boundaries — the FISC court has been unusually compliant with the NSA’s requests.  For example, between 2010 and 2012, the FISC approved all of the NSA’s 5,180 surveillance requests.

In the Verizon matter, the FISC ruling, signed by Judge Robert Vinson, was leaked and posted online, making it one of the very few glimpses into the court’s activities seen in public. In the PRISM Internet data-mining story, journalists obtained 41 PowerPoint slides prepared by the NSA for top-secret briefings only.

Internet privacy advocates, like the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have warned that “there is simply too little known about the operation of the FISC today to determine whether it is effective and whether the privacy interests of Americans are adequately protected.”

For his part, U.S. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper has confirmed the existence of PRISM and decried the leaks as “reprehensible,” saying, “The unauthorized disclosure of a top-secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.” The nine Internet companies named by the Washington Post have issued either non-committal statements, or outright denied any knowledge of PRISM.

Two Degrees Of Separation

It’s likely that shortly after Alexander Graham Bell told assistant Thomas Watson, “I need you,” telephones have been tapped. With it’s hard-wired person-to-person structure, it has aided countless investigations. The Internet, however, is another matter.

Graphic logo of the PRISM project found on classified documents

By its structure, Internet data doesn’t travel in a straight line from point to point, but rather in a zig-zagging trail that can route one email through dozens of servers across the globe. Much of that traffic transits through the United States, meaning that a Skype conversation or Facebook chat between someone in Jakarta and someone else in Baku will likely end up flowing through U.S.-based servers.

This enormous amount of data can be analyzed by NSA computers to determine not only who a suspected foreign terrorist is speaking with or emailing, but the people those individuals in turn are communicating with, and what they’re talking about. Even at just two hops, the number of people caught up in one terrorist’s surveillance can quickly number well into the thousands. That’s a tremendous amount of personal information that PRISM grants the NSA.

The phone monitoring is somewhat different, and not really phone tapping. The FISC order in the Verizon matter strictly limits surveillance to “meta-data” — that is, the time, duration and recipient of a phone call, but not the actual communication itself. By sorting through these many millions of data points, intelligence analysts are looking for patterns in the noise that may provide crucial clues about the identity and location of potential terrorists.

Another easily overlooked facet to these stories is that the very firms – like Apple, PalTalk or AOL – that people are using to chat and share online are themselves mining their data stores for their own corporate gains. While some companies like Facebook and Google provide “privacy tools” that allow users to restrict personal data sharing, each firm admits to using private data to tailor services to customers, or selling it to other firms hoping to, say, better target their online advertising.

Cold Comfort and More Debate

Still, all that may be cold comfort to people like Digital First Media’s Mandy Jones, who tweeted, “I shudder to think of what the NSA is doing with those drunk photos I thought were safely hidden on Facebook.” [Ed. note: As we’ve repeatedly told you, there is nothing hidden on Facebook.] While both Republican and Democratic members on Capitol Hill have been briefed on these, and likely other, NSA programs, they were limited in what they could say or object to by the FISC’s classified nature. More congressional debate can be expected.

In the meantime, amid memories of the 2005 revelations of the Bush administration’s “warrantless wiretapping” program, and the current swirl of stories about tax agency over-reach and the Justice Department’s broad seizure of AP journalists’ phone records, worries about the NSA’s surveillance of all people – foreign and domestic – will only grow.

Until then, it’s worth remembering that there is very little that’s completely private in these digital times.


11 responses to “Caught In The PRISM”

  1. Mandy Jenkins says:

    Before pulling a quote from Twitter, I’d recommend checking the name and bio info. Also a good idea: Noting if the person sending said tweet was being facetious.

    • Doug Bernard says:

      Mandy – I thought the intent of the message was fairly clear. –dbj

      • Steve Buttry says:

        I know Mandy. I knew that was facetious when I read it. Do you really want to go to “I thought” when you’re caught doing lazy reporting? You didn’t even get her name right! This is the time for a mea culpa, not trying to tell Mandy you really know she wasn’t being facetious.

  2. Thomas J. Corcoran, DALBY, SWEDEN says:

    The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
    — (The Dearest and Best) President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

  3. privvy says:

    There is not one single free email service or cell phone company, which would not try to racketeer your personal information one way or the other.

    Free email services also use use the cloud, and that puts everyone in danger from hackers.

    Why so many people fall for the ‘free’ internet services is beyond me. YOU ARE THE PRODUCT!!

    Go ahead and spend your 5 bucks on your daily latte or cappuccino and cheap out not spending 10 or 20 bucks a year on a private secure encrypted email service..

    My family all use private and secure email services including hush mail and for privacy and professionalism. And I never even get spam anymore since I stopped using free email services like gmail who spam you with advertisements by filtering keywords in your email text.

    BOYCOTT ALL CORPORATE FREE EMAIL SERVICES AND FACEBOOK!! Hit the corporations where it hurts, stop using them in protest! I did this years ago and no looking back to corporate internet spyware services!

  4. […] NSA Spying – Phone Sex, Banks & Google for Emails All Of Interest To The Spymasters Posted on June 16, 2013 by fanofootball // […]

  5. bruce says:

    Spying and eveasdropping has been going on for a long time, just that the interent is so open to acess, even by teenageers hacking websites for fun. So have there been mass arrests of wanted criminals/ wanted terrorists? missing persons? Not likely.

  6. JNAN says:

    The more the systems are going high-tech,the higher the crime index is soaring.The PRISM is doing good job;NSA is doing good job.But none ought to be adversely victimized.This is because God is going super-high-tech over global high-tech system.

  7. […] electronic surveillance efforts, President Obama wants to remove what’s known as the “bulk metadata collection program” from the NSA and make mobile phone and data companies responsible for electronic […]

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