NSA’s PRISM Program Wants to Know Your Thoughts
The NSA, the world’s largest intelligence agency and a central part of the United States military apparatus has received access to droves of civilian communications through its recently revealed PRISM program. Like many other top secret domestic surveillance programs, including Stellar Wind, and the FBI led Project Carnivore (now referred to as the Digital Collection System) that aim to vacuum up electronic data on people in the US, PRISM reveals itself as another powerful tool in the governments rapidly growing surveillance arsenal.
The NSA’s PRISM program functions as a “back door” through which the US government can directly access massive reserves of private data from partnership companies. The companies the NSA has partnered with to form PRISM are Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Paltalk, Youtube, AOL and just this past year Apple. These nine companies which make up the bulk of email, video, search engines, online communications in general, provide the US government with direct access to their servers. In other words the NSA can directly obtain information stored on the companies servers about anyone and conduct real-time data collection on targeted users. According to the Obama Administration with its radical interpretation of powers enumerated in the FISA Amendment this kind of probing is limited and legal. But a quick look at what the FISA Act of 1978 originally set out to accomplish shows how far we have drifted after two administrations from the legal confines of carrying out surveillance and how the criteria for selecting those targets has changed.
Senate Committee findings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where federal resources were discovered to have been used by the Nixon administration to spy on political activist groups prompted lawmakers to create judicial and congressional oversight of government surveillance activities while still providing intelligence agencies the secrecy needed to conduct investigations on “foreign powers” and Americans communicating with them. The idea was to strike a balance between intelligence agencies’ needs to intercept communications pertaining to plots to sabotage and attack the United States and US citizens’ constitutional rights to live free from unwarranted searches and seizures. For that reason Congress passed the FISA Act satisfying national security needs to undermine and intercept foreign plots while preserving civil liberties, in particular the right of US citizen to not have their communications eavesdropped on without a court warrant. For thirty years federal investigators would have to show probable cause to a FISA court (a special court of judges responsible for overseeing federal agents requests for surveillance warrants) that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Intelligence agencies were emboldened by this law to carry out surveillance on actors subversive to US national security. Furthermore the FISA courts posed virtually no obstacle to intelligence agents seeking to obtain warrants. From the period 1979-2006 a total of 22,990 applications for warrants were made to the Court of which 22,985 were approved. In sum, FISA became primary tool for investigators to combat foreign threats and terrorism. The 2001 Patriot Act, Protect America Act of 2007 and the reviled FISA Amendments Act of 2008 changed all of this by vastly expanding the governments powers to conduct surveillance and increase the number of targets it could surveil. Today these are the legal justifications the Obama Administration is using to carry out its massive dragnet.
Last December’s debate about the renewal of the FISA Amendment ACT shed further light on the Administration’s expanding powers.Tthe ACLU published a policy paper that highlighted the constitutional concerns the Act raised. The NSA’s PRISM program makes the following eight concerns a concrete reality.
1. The law gives the government sweeping surveillance power without requiring it to identify the targets of its surveillance.
2. The law allows the government to intercept U.S. citizens’ and residents’ international telephone and email communications without having to identify the facilities, phone lines, email addresses, or locations to be monitored.
3. The law allows the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without meaningful judicial oversight.
4. The law places no meaningful limits on the government’s retention and dissemination of information relating to U.S. citizens and residents.
5. Nothing in the law prevents the government from compiling huge databases of foreign intelligence information and searching those databases later for information about U.S. citizens and residents.
6. The law does not limit government surveillance to communications relating to terrorism.
7. The law gives the government access to some communications that are purely domestic.
8. The law immunizes the telecoms that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
So what are the implications of the US government having direct access to users data from the largest internet companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo? While there are many three implications of the PRISM several things immediately stand out.
First and foremost it means that Americans who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism and who pose no threat to national security are having their communications records stored for digital analysis and where deemed necessary for further analysis by intelligence specialists. The Wall Street Journal reported as far back as 2008 that the NSA receives “transactional data” from a variety of agencies and private companies so it can monitor ‘huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.” When suspicious transaction patterns are detected by the NSA’s sophisticated dragnet software leads are spit out to counter terrorism agencies for investigation.
Second the broad sweeping powers of PRISM assure us that the communications of millions of individuals are being intercepted by the United States without warrants, in total secrecy and save the Obama Administration’s radical interpretation of executive authority so similar to that of his predecessor, in violation of the Constitution.
Third the cooperation of private companies with the NSA blurs any line that distinguishes private telecommunications and internet corporations as separate from the growing surveillance state. From Google to Apple, the nine companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM are complicit in providing services for and carrying out the functions of the the United State’s surveillance apparatus.
Fourth that a military/intelligence institution has become so heavily involved in intercepting and analyzing the private communications of individuals across digital networks suggests nothing but the militarization of communications infrastructure.
Finally in parsing through the private communications of millions of individuals who have no connection to terrorism and who are not suspected of having committed a crime the government is keeping record and analyzing the conversations of its citizenry. In this way it comes to know not only what kinds of terrorists plots are brewing but what it’s citizenry is talking about, thinking. This begs the question, why would a government want to know the thoughts of the governed and why would it want to hide the fact that it monitors their communications?