Shining light on PRISM

At High School we learned that a prism is an object that reveals certain secrets when light is directed onto it. It has taken over five years for light to shine on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) PRISM programme. Last week, a pack of 41 powerpoint slides was leaked from the NSA, 5 of which have been released by the Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post. Initially it appeared that the spooks had gone a lot further than we imagined, with direct access to companies’ servers, however there are questions on the accuracy of the slides.

PRISM was established by the NSA in November 2007 when Microsoft joined the programme, to obtain dragnet surveillance data on individuals. The data is obtained from phone calls, emails, VOIP, search history, file storage and transfer, and social networking. Eight other companies subsequently joined the PRISM programme: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, PalTalk, YouTube, AOL, and finally Apple in October 2012. Dropbox is reported to be the next to join.

The concern was that the State is spying on all internet traffic passing through the US, from all citizens and foreigners, rather than only on suspects and only after going through a legal process for permission. It has also been revealed that the UK has access to the programme. The UK’s GCHQ has been called to the House of Commons this week to explain. Other countries (such as New Zealand) are also concerned that PRISM has enabled their country’s spy masters to circumvent local laws and spy on citizens without going through the normal channels.

After the recent furore about Chinese government spying, the leaked NSA slides indicate that the US State is also spying on it’s own citizens and foreigners, including spying on Chinese. Barak Obama assures us that “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls”. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange describes the activities of PRISM as a “calamitous collapse in the rule of law”. Aljazeera is questioning whether all online privacy is dead. Meanwhile Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked the NSA slides, is now holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Facebook and Google have denied all knowledge of PRISM and say they do not provide the NSA direct access to their servers. The statements from these two companies used almost identical wording. Yahoo also deny providing unlimited access to their data.

The Director of National Intelligence has cleared up some of the misunderstanding by explaining that access is only to data on selected individuals rather than on everyone, and only after going through the required legal process.

The question is, does PRISM represent incremental encroachment on our privacy? Does privacy now only exist on the dark side of the moon? Are the leaked NSA powerpoint slides exaggerated and misleading, have they been misinterpreted, or are they accurate? To avoid Big Brother, should individuals be changing the communication software they use to Tor, DuckDuckGo, Hushmail, Pidder, RedPhone and Cryptocat?

Certainly, events over the past few days make one point clear, encroachments on individual privacy will not be taken lightly. This is healthy. The State needs checks and balances to curb excessive intrusions into civil liberties. Light must shine on projects such as PRISM, earlier than 5 years after project commencement. Big Brother cannot be watchdog over itself, there needs to be public oversight. The State now has the technical capability to monitor all internet traffic, especially when the Utah Data Centre comes online later this year. Authorities such as the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ need to mine big data to obtain information on suspect individuals to fight terrorism and keep citizens safe. However they should be required to go through legal hoops to obtain this information, and their powers in this regard must be closely restricted. The State should never be provided carte blanche permission to snoop in everyone’s data. Citizens value what privacy is left regarding online data. As we generate more and more information, this issue of using our private data without specific consent is bound to arise again and again as we grapple with the balance between individual privacy and national security.

The final chapter in this story is still to be written. Most of the leaked slide deck has not yet been revealed.

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