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“A Misleading Media Picture”: Why The National Security Agency’s PRISM Program Is Nothing To Fear

It has been revealed that the National Security Agency has been employing PRISM, a $20-million-per-year program that monitors the movement of individuals through digital data, for roughly six years. PRISM has gained access to private information and online correspondence through nine technology companies here in the U.S. The USA PATRIOT Act and the Protect America Act of 2007 (PAA) opened the door for this surveillance program to take shape.

President Obama and the NSA have been criticized for a lack of transparency and the program’s assumed targeting of American citizens. The president said during a press conference on Friday that PRISM does not target American citizens or those living in the U.S., stating, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls” and “They are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content.” The surveillance program was structured to exclusively monitor correspondence between foreign individuals—solely the lines of communication between these individuals that pass through the U.S.

PRISM may not be the top-secret program of government overreach that many are trying to portray it as. The program is lawful (as long as American citizens and individuals in the U.S. are not monitored) under PAA, and for six years the entire program was fully recognized by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The NSA still must have a reasonable cause for intercepting communications, appeal to a federal court and gain permission to monitor any correspondence—all of which include Congressional oversight.

The NSA recently declassified a slideshow that outlines PRISM on a very basic level. This is what is currently known about the surveillance program: There were a total of nine technology companies included in PRISM—Microsoft in September, 2007, Yahoo in March, 2008, Google, Facebook, and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in September, 2010, Skype and AOL in early 2011, and Apple in October of 2012.

While officials from AOL, PalTalk, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple have all denied any knowledge of PRISM or working with the U.S. government on such a program, the NSA would still be within legal parameters if they monitored any data from these companies with a court order.

According to the PRISM slideshow, the types of materials they seek are email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP (phone calls made over the internet), file transfers, video conferencing, log-ins, time stamps, and any information provided on social networking sites.

The NSA slideshow makes three points defining the necessity of such a program: “Much of the world’s communications flow through the U.S.,” “A target’s phone call, email or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path—you can’t always predict the path,” and “Your target’s communications could easily be flowing into and through the U.S.”

Basically, what we’ve learned about the NSA and PRISM is nothing new. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said of PRISM, “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this, and to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information.” In other words, these actions have been lawfully taking place for six years and were approved by Congress with the effortless passages of the PATRIOT Act in 2001 and the Protect America Act in 2007.

The picture that is being painted of PRISM—a secretive surveillance program that unlawfully delves into the average American’s private life—is misleading. PRISM, if carried out properly, is only used to monitor suspicious patterns of communications abroad. If individuals choose to use means of communication that are based here in the U.S., the U.S. government, with the proper court approval, is entirely within its rights to seek out information it deems necessary for national security purpose—as long as Congress continues to authorize the laws that allow such programs.

By: Allison Brito, The National Memo, June 7, 2013

June 10, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Non-Factual Facts”: Washington Post Hedges Claim That Google, Facebook, Gave The Government Direct Access To Their Servers

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies’ hundreds of millions of users.

The government agencies, the Post said, were “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

This surveillance program, the Post reported, had been “knowingly” facilitated by the tech companies, which had allowed the government to tap directly into their central servers.

The Post story described a “career intelligence officer” as being so horrified by the power and privacy intrusion of this surveillance system that the officer was helping to leak the news to expose it.

“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly told the Post.

Not surprisingly, the Post’s story created an instant explosion of outrage. The ire was directed at both the government and the technology companies.

The story also led to immediate, explicit denials from the technology companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all said that the government did not have “direct access” to any servers. Apple said it had never even heard of the program it was supposedly partnering with.

So The Post’s claim that the companies had voluntarily given the government direct, open, un-monitored access to their servers quickly seemed suspect.

And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story.

First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies “knowingly” participated in the government spying program.

Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to their servers.

The latter change is subtle, but important. In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies’ servers.

Now, the Post attributes the claim to a government presentation–a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, at least, seems inaccurate.

In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country’s largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies’ users in real time.

Specifically, here’s how the Washington Post story has changed…

Here’s the original first paragraph:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

Here’s the updated paragraph (our emphasis):

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

That change is important. The direct-access claim changes from a fact asserted by the Washington Post to a claim made in a document the Washington Post has seen–a document that might be wrong.

The idea that Google, Facebook, Apple, et al, had voluntarily given the government direct unfettered access to their servers always seemed far-fetched.

This behavior would justifiably trigger the wrath of the companies’ hundreds of millions of users worldwide and exacerbate already existing concerns that these companies routinely trample all over their users’ privacy.

Furthermore, the government’s assertions that its spying programs are directed primarily at foreigners, not US citizens, would not be viewed as comforting to Google, Facebook, et al.

Why not?

Because the vast majority of the users of these companies’ services are foreigners.

If the international users of Facebook, Google, et al, were to feel that the companies were opening their data centers in this way, the international users might revolt. So it’s hard to imagine that these companies would just voluntarily open their servers to the U.S. government (or, for that matter, any other government).

The Washington Post also broke the news about the existence of the vast government program Internet spying called PRISM, which other outlets have since confirmed. And the story illustrated how extensively the government uses Internet communications in its intelligence efforts and how important these communications are to national security.

But, a day after the Post story appeared, it seems likely that the following claims are wrong or at least need major qualification:

  • that the NSA and FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of Facebook, Google, et al, and,
  • that the government can “quite literally watch your ideas form as you type.”

 

By: Henry Blodget, Business Insider, June 7, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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