Looking Through the Cloudy PRISM

As you have no doubt heard, a lot of fuss has been made over the past couple days involving both NSA, Verizon, and Facebook, as well as several other companies and governments. Here, we want to provide a concise overview of the information available at this point, along with some links to additional reading about the program that is known as “PRISM”.

On June 6, 2013, the Guardian published an article that suggested a classified order was issued on April 25, 2013 that allowed the United States government to collect data until July 19, 2013 and then hand it over to the NSA. This order was issued to Verizon, and it’s existence was not allowed to be spoken of. Currently, the documents revealed only cover Verizon, but there may have been similar orders involving other companies, not just ones that provide phone service. PRISM, a program allowing the NSA access to company data, was originally enabled in December of 2007 by President Bush under a U.S. surveillance law and then renewed by President Obama in December of 2012. This program was started to aid anti-terrorism efforts and there are claims by the government that it has already prevented a terrorist plot in Colorado.

These documents reveal that the NSA is performing massive data mining covering millions of U.S. citizens. Wired reported the collected data includes phone numbers of both parties involved in the phone call, the time and duration of the call, the calling card numbers used in the call, and the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number which applies to mobile callers. The location of the calls may have been recording using cell tower data. Data that was NOT collected includes names, addresses, account information, and recordings of call content. There is heated debate whether this metadata is sensitive or not. On the one hand, no names or call content suggests that your fundamental privacy is intact. On the other hand, consider that the government knows you “spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.”

Edward Snowden has been identified as the whistleblower who released the documents that exposed this classified order. He had access to these documents as an employee for the NSA, which he had been working for over last four years as a contractor from outside organizations, including Booz Allen and Dell. When Snowden released the documents he stated, “I can’t allow the US to destroy privacy and Internet freedom.”

This article by the Guardian highlights multiple comments made by President Obama about the issue. He called this a “very limited issue” when discussing these disclosures of the NSA accessing phone data. In an attempt to deflect criticism, the President also stated that he had privacy concerns regarding private corporations as they collect more data than the government.

Both Facebook and Google denied any previous knowledge of the PRISM surveillance program after concerns they may have been part of the program. Many other technology companies thought be be part of PRISM issued similar statements saying that they did not allow the government “direct access” to their systems. However, theNY Times reports that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, and Paltalk all negotiated with the government and were required to share information due to theForeign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Guardian also states that Microsoft has been a part of this information sharing program since the beginning in December of 2007 and was joined by Yahoo in 2008, Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, Skype and AOL in 2011, and Apple in 2012. At this point, it is a game of “who do you trust?” The government who finds such data incredibly valuable, or the corporations that sometimes rely on such data for their business model (e.g. Facebook).

In an article by Mark Jaquith, he mentions how important the details are in this situation. There are two different reports on how PRISM actually works; one says the government can directly and unilaterally access company servers to take data and the other is just an easier way to transfer data requested by court orders. The majority of reports are pointing toward the second method describing the way that PRISM works. If this is true, the transfer of data is moderated and indirect making it basically a lock box to securely pass information through. Now, that this has been brought to light we hope more details will continue come to the surface to provide clarity.

As with many big information leaks, the emotions and politics quickly take hold and begin to dominate the argument. Veterans of the Internet are largely not surprised by the PRISM news, due to fleeting memory of ECHELON, Carnivore, and likely other initiatives that never came to light. Regardless, the PRISM program represents a serious threat to individual privacy and every citizen should be concerned.

Written by eabsetz

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