Nine technology companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have been accused of giving the National Security Agency (NSA) direct access to the companies servers. Citing leaked documents, The Washington Post reported that the companies were all voluntarily participating in the programs, though Apple denied it was doing so.
Can they hear you now?
The program is not the same as the one reported by The Guardian Thursday morning. In that program, the NSA reportedly obtained a court order that requires Verizon to hand over all business metadata (phone numbers, GPS coordinates, and other non-content-related data pertaining to communications).
The program being reported by The Washington Post is called PRISM, and it's an effort that U.S. technology companies are reportedly participating in voluntarily. Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! reportedly make up 98 percent of PRISM "production," according to leaked documents.
PRISM as a whole is now, "the most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year." The NSA is reportedly relying on the program to such a degree that it formed the basis of 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
Apple & The Others
Apple was specifically named as a contributing company to PRISM in The Post's documents, but the Cupertino company denied knowledge of it. In a statement, Apple spokesperson Steve Dowling told news organizations:
We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.
Facebook issued similar denials. The full list of companies participating in the program includes, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. Dropbox was described in the leaked documents as "coming soon."
The report said that Apple resisted becoming involved for five years "for reasons unknown," but Apple is allegedly involved today, despite the denial from the company. Microsoft was the first company to sign up, and that was in 2007. Time tables for the other companies were not given, but note that Twitter is not among the companies listed.
For its part, Google didn't actually deny being part of PRISM, though it did deny creating a back door for the U.S. government. Google's statement:
Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.
That statement can be read in a lot of ways, and we should note that U.S. law does allow for the PRISM program.
The NSA & Domestic Surveillance
The NSA is technically the U.S.'s cryptologic agency, and is part of the Department of Defense (DOD). The NSA's job is to intercept and decrypt foreign communications and to protect the U.S.'s information systems.
The agency has grown in power and stature within the U.S. intelligence world, in part because the NSA can do something the CIA is legally prohibited from doing, which is operate within the U.S. itself.
More specifically, the CIA is, "specifically prohibited from collecting intelligence concerning the domestic activities of U.S. citizens," according to its own FAQ.
Not so the NSA, so the agency has become the central force in domestic spying, especially in the wake of 9/11. The Bush Administration (with and without the help of Congress) greatly increased the agency's already large role in U.S. intelligence, and the Obama Administration appears to have continued—and in some cases expanded—many of the practices put in place by its predecessor.
PRISM's goal is to collect data that can then be mined for clues and hints of terrorist operations, plots, and general goings-on. While that's a topic most people can generally agree upon, the fact that essentially every U.S. citizen is being spied upon without a warrant or probable cause is an issue that those same people can likely agree has the potential for Really Bad Things™. It's certainly an issue for those concerned with civil rights.
For instance, Jamil Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Post, "I would just push back on the idea that the court has signed off on it, so why worry? This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government.”
In a succinct and salient comment, reporters Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras wrote in their Post article, "[PRISM's] history, in which President Obama presided over exponential growth in a program that candidate Obama criticized, shows how fundamentally surveillance law and practice have shifted away from individual suspicion in favor of systematic, mass collection techniques."
To that end, PRISM is theoretically intended to gather communications from foreigners. The NSA doesn't collect all of the data available, but uses its access to selectively slurp specific data it is looking for. Data about and communicated between U.S. citizens in the U.S. does get scooped up in "incidental collections," however, which is a problem.
There is much more in the full four-page article.
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