This story is getting bigger and bigger. Even though most Americans probably already knew, it is now official: the United States government, through its National Security Agency, is collecting the communications and data of all American citizens, and of non-Americans using American services, through a wide collaboration with the large companies in technology, like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. Interestingly enough, the NSA itself, as well as the US government, have repeatedly and firmly denied this massive spying on Americans and non-Americans took place at all.
The project is called PRISM, which is fitting when you think about how data travels through fibre these days. The Washing Post has gained access to a set of very detailed slides from the NSA explaining how it all all works and who the NSA is collaborating with, and it includes all the big names in technology, from Apple to Facebook, from Google to Microsoft. It covers all information flows, whether from Americans or non-Americans. Considering virtually each and every one of uses one or more American services or software products, we are all targets. Nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports in the US is now based on PRISM data.
What’s most peculiar is that the companies involved in PRISM all deny being part of it. The Washington Post contacted the companies involved, and Facebook and Apple said they have no knowledge of the program, and thus are not involved with it – which is odd, because the official government documentation clearly mentioned them. The Verge contacted Google, and the search and advertisement giant, too, denies involvement – even though they, and several of its companies like youTube, are listed as well. Microsoft was the first company to join the program (and is also denying involvement, others joined in later. Twitter has yet to join.
The PRISM program has access to everything – phone call recordings, file transfers, browsing history, email, your files stored on the internet, and so on. Just about anything you can imagine is part of PRISM. Suddenly, it starts to make even more sense why China is so hell-bent on creating its own alternatives to American products and services; they obviously knew about PRISM long before we did.
The program is technically legal and court-approved (by the FISA court), but that’s only because that FISA court convenes in secret, behind closed doors, is unchecked by the people, and rarely releases any documentation whatsoever. “I would just push back on the idea that the court has signed off on it, so why worry?” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Washington post, “This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government.â€
What’s more, when under oath only a few months ago in March 2013, the NSA, by mouth of director of national intelligence James Clapper, denied that the NSA and the US government was spying on its citizens. Six minutes and forty seconds in, a clearly fidgeting and uncomfortable Clapper responds “No sir. Not wittingly.” Looking back, it’s clear the guy is lying, as he’s showing all the telltale signs.
Clapper is clearly disconnected from reality, as his response to the uncovering of PRISM is borderline idiotic. In several press releases, he reiterates the program is legal (and thus, confirms its existence), and that the reports by The Washington Post and The Guardian contain several inaccuracies – but as a crystal clear sign of weakness, he doesn’t actually detail the supposed inaccuracies. Furthermore, and this is where he really goes off his rocker, he accuses the two newspapers of endangering the lives of Americans, and that reporting on PRISM is “reprehensible”.
Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.
The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.
PRISM isn’t even the worst of it. The NSA has collected records on every phone call made in the US in the last seven years, and has that data stored on servers right now. In addition, the NSA receives data on every American from US internet service providers and credit card companies. Combine PRISM data with this additional data – and probably from a variety of other sources – and it’s pretty clear the US is now officially a surveillance state, not much better or worse than China. In addition, the NSA has collected loads of information on non-Americans as well, which looks a lot like an act of aggression against foreign, independent nations to me.
But, my dear American and non-American friends, you need not worry. That same man, director of national intelligence James Clapper, says we can all safely go to sleep since the US government is bound by law and can’t sift through all this data at will. Of course, we all trust the US government. Right?
By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling. The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.
This scandal is growing like an oil stain, and even though the supposed ‘legal’ nature of it all will most likely mean nothing will happen, you’d hope some heads are going to roll here. Ideally, the program would be stopped the data destroyed, but that will never happen. It’s a universal truth in governance that a government’s power can only grow; it can never shrink. Once power is owned, it is never released. Government don’t shrink; they either grow, or topple.
One thing is clear though: while we were all worrying about data collected by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and others – we should have been focussing on the government all along. Just remember that if you buy an Xbox One, your next game console will have a microphone-equipped camera permanently peering into your living room, built by the first company to join the PRISM program.
It has been quoted to death the past 30 years, but we can now safely say that George Orwell was right – he was just off by 30 years. Welcome to the surveillance state.