How the PRISM Surveillance System Works


Season 4: The Surprise Ending

There we have it. The government, we learned, seems to be using a little bit of legal chicanery to create broad orders (reviewed by a court) that let the NSA request specific, targeted information from companies. By pretty much every account, government agents are not getting direct access to servers as initially reported. They are making it really easy to obtain lots of information without some slow-reading judge reviewing every single request, or an engineer sifting through tons of data to find it. No problem, you might say, if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind Agent Z from the Maryland field office knowing you plan on eating ice cream for dinner and watching "The Bachelorette" after work.

And let's be straight: After the initial leak and subsequent outrage, the PRISM program began to look a little less intrusive on further review. Pretty much every company rather forcefully denied giving access to nontargeted data, in general [source: McCullagh]. People even began to question Edward Snowden's own knowledge of how the NSA works and his lack of discretion when deciding what to actually leak [source: Toobin, Drum].

But let's pretend, for one moment, we're all on the "encrypt everything including the throw pillows" side of protecting privacy. Wouldn't it follow suit that these companies would have to lie about their involvement to protect a top secret program? Wouldn't the government also lie about the existence of it, or at least fudge some details to make it more appetizing (or legal) to media outlets and the general public? Why, in other words, should we trust the technology conglomerates and the government when presented with some data that says they're lying? (This sounds like a job for the Stuff They Don't Want You to Know team!)

And thus -- our series continues to unfold. We won't know the answers for a good long while, and it's doubtful any resolution will come in the finale. But in the meantime, it's probably best to assume that if government security analysts want to read your e-mail, listen to your phone calls or check your calendar -- they can.

Author's Note: How the PRISM Surveillance System Works

Like a lot of us, my initial reaction to PRISM was something along the lines of, "go ahead, government -- have a ball reading my e-mails where I complain about how long I have to wait until lunch and question the value of juicing." But after learning about PRISM, there was a shift in thinking. It's not so much the actual program as it's taking place now, but the fact that our government isn't static. While I certainly don't fear that I've said anything that could get me in trouble ... policies change. Administrations change. Regimes, in fact, change. It's the fact that the government might not necessarily be analyzing my information -- but able to access it, now or in the future -- that should give one pause.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Ambinder, Marc. "Solving the mystery of PRISM." The Week. June 7, 2013. (June 20, 2013) http://theweek.com/article/index/245360/solving-the-mystery-of-prism
  • Braun, Stephen, et al. "Secret to PRISM program: even bigger data seizure." The Associated Press. June 15, 2013. (June 20, 2013) http://bigstory.ap.org/article/secret-prism-success-even-bigger-data-seizure
  • Buchanan, Matt. "The NSA's Prism remains opaque." The New Yorker. June 13, 2013. (June 20, 2013) http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/06/nsa-prism-snowden-what-we-know.html
  • Change, Alisa. "Secret surveillance credited with preventing terror acts." National Public Radio. June 19, 2013. (June 20, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2013/06/19/193347739/secret-surveillance-credited-with-preventing-terror-acts
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