How the PRISM Surveillance System Works

Season 3: The Whistleblower

So scene one of season 3 unfolds on one Edward Snowden, 29-year-old contract employee with the NSA. Having just finished copying various classified documents from the NSA Hawaii office, he tells his boss he needs time off for epilepsy treatment; he gives his girlfriend a vague story about having to work out of office for a while. (At the time of posting, he was in Russia.) He promptly flies to Hong Kong, and begins contacting a few reporters with his story.

What exactly he leaked to the media outlets is not entirely clear, although we know there's at least a PowerPoint presentation of 41 slides. (Proving that secret government meetings are just as boring as your weekly office check-ins.) It appears to be a presentation designed to train operatives, but keep in mind the Guardian and Washington Post only released a few of these slides.

There's not much doubt that the slides are a bit verbose when describing the program: the first slide reads in part, "The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting" (bold theirs) [source: Washington Post]. (A SIGAD is a data collection site) [source: Ambinder]. As Stewart Baker, former NSA general counsel, said in an interview after reviewing the documents, they seem "suffused with a kind of hype that makes it sound more like a marketing pitch than a briefing" [source: McCullagh].

First reports from the Washington Post and other outlets initially claimed that one of the major differences of PRISM was that it allowed the government direct access to company servers.

It's important to note the press backed off that claim and subsequently acknowledged that instead companies are likely setting up secure servers or dropboxes to facilitate easier transfers when given a direct order by the government [source: Gellman and Poitras]. So that's kind of like a accessing a server directly, but only semantically -- it's much different than the government scrolling through our e-mails whenever they want, in real time.