A revelation on September 11th, 2001, brought the United States and its spying agencies into the spotlight after the leakage of certain classified files. These files indicated that both foreign subjects and U.S. citizens were being spied upon without any connection to terrorism or any wrongdoing. As the revelation took its course, individual names and programs such as Edward Snowden and PRISM popped up that provoked the public to pressurize the government to come clean about domestic spying.
What is PRISM?
PRISM is a spying program endorsed and used by the U.S. National Security Agency to keep an eye on the electronic data of its citizens, including those that regularly use major internet services like Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, Outlook, and others. The program did not only aim to keep an eye on them but collected private data as well, which was a huge cause for concern. The evolution of PRISM took place right after the 9/11 attacks under the supervision of President George Bush, who initiated spying programs such as PRISM under the Patriot Act.
Even today, a lot remains unknown about PRISM and how it operates. However, one thing is for certain, and that is, it allows the NSA to collect private data of users from major technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, etc. At the same time, the U.S. government persists that it only allows the collection of data after the approval of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
What makes PRISM a Big Deal?
Perhaps the only concern that makes a spying program such as PRISM a big deal is its ability to tap and collect the private data of users without their concern. As stated by many reports, that PRISM has direct access to the data of users, and the NSA does not necessarily require the permission of major technology companies or the surveillance court to access it. On the other hand, the U.S. government has vehemently denied its involvement in such allegations and remains adamant about the fact that it still needs approval from the court in such cases. Even though the statement might have sufficed certain people, critics are still concerned with the extent of the program and how it violates the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
In addition to that, major technology companies have also denied their involvement by stating that they were not aware of such programs and did not participate in PRISM. If not anything, this further raises skepticism about PRISM and the fact that the FISA functions in secret, no one can tell whether the government is still motivated to initiate and endorse such programs in the future.
The Creation of Prism
Washington Post, in its report, stated that PRISM was initiated by President George Bush under the Protect America Act. It was a streamlined version of the spying programs that the U.S. government was already using pre-9/11 attacks. PRISM and all the other spying practices came under one umbrella, and that was President Bush’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”
The Protect America Act allows the director-general of national intelligence and attorney general to explain secretly as to how the U.S. will collect data on foreigners overseas each year. However, it does not require the specific names of individuals and places. Once the plan undergoes the approval of a federal judge in secrecy, it allows the NSA to send the data acquired from companies like Facebook and Google to the government.
How did PRISM leak?
A 29-year old intelligence contractor by the name of Edward Snowden stepped forward with his confession and claimed responsibility for leaking PRISM. He was formerly hired by both the CIA and NSA. It was not only Edward Snowden who leaked the program but Booz Allen Hamilton as well. On June 9th, shortly after the reports were published on PRISM, Edward Snowden introduced himself to the public and, in an interview with the Guardian, said: “I do not wish to be a part of a society that does these sort of things.” He went on to add that it was his civic duty that motivated him to leak classified information.
Leaking classified information calls for major trouble, and therefore, Edward Snowden left the U.S. before leaking the classified files. He took refuge in Hong Kong and remained there until June 23rd. Then, he acquired the assistance of WikiLeaks and flew to Moscow. He has requested asylum in Russia, Ecuador, and several other countries. Today, Edward Snowden resides in an airport situated in Moscow, waiting to be granted asylum.
What do PRISM and NSA collect?
On one hand, the leakage of spying programs such as PRISM has shed light on the collection of private data, on the other, it has brought the vast array of programs sponsored by NSA into the spotlight. In broader terms, these surveillance programs can be divided into two categories: “Upstream” wiretaps. These wiretaps extract information directly from the communication cables installed undersea. The second is programs like PRISM that acquire communication information from U.S. service providers. Amongst the classified slides that were leaked, one of them suggested that analysts “should use both” of these sources.
Moreover, programs sponsored by NSA collect two types of data: content and metadata. Metadata is the type of data, which is the result of communications such as phone records that display participants, duration of calls and times, etc., while PRISM collects information included in chats, emails, cloud-stored files, and VoIP calls. U.S. officials have tried to shift the focus of allegations by stating that the collection of metadata does not reveal the conversation contents. But the thing with metadata is that not only does it reveal the communication information but also other important information such as geolocation data, email logs, and even web search histories.
The Current Situation
Since the leakage of PRISM documents, the U.S. has been engulfed in an international public debate regarding spying programs. The Obama administration has been excessively criticized even though they still maintain that such programs are legal and necessary. Some U.S. lawmakers, in return, have stepped back and are equally opposing the acts of endorsing such programs. Furthermore, prominent companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have put their foot down as well, demanding that the government withdraws its involvement in such acts and allows the U.S. citizens to practice their rights of freedom. At the moment, efforts are being made to curb laws and legislations that allow the government and spy agencies to collect private data. However, it is still in its early stages.
The revelation of PRISM has sparked anger amongst the public, and it can be said for sure that nothing can stop it for years to come. The days following the leaking of classified files, the U.S became a witness to rallies in more than 100 cities. Whether this outrage results in reform is for time to tell, but we can be thankful to the likes of young individuals like Edward Snowden who have provided the U.S. citizens an opportunity to discuss what the government and the spying agencies have been holding on to and for what reason in the name of national security.