NSA PRISM Program Rocks The American Privacy Landscape

The media has been buzzing with the latest leak of the American spying program known as PRISM. Numerous companies were reportedly compliant in handing over personal information to the US government. We sift through the flurry that has occurred over the weekend.

For privacy observers and advocates, things haven’t been this eventful in the US since the the EFF sued the American government over the warrantless wiretapping program through the AT&T network that was only revealed by a whistleblower. The famous room that allegedly contains a splitter which copies all information and feeds the copy to the NSA cracked open a huge debate over privacy during the Bush era. At the time, the government argued that the program was secret and vital to protecting the American way of life.

After the Obama administration took over, secret wiretapping not only persisted, but increased. In regards to the wiretapping, the government argued that the program only targets foreign traffic and that secret spying doesn’t target American citizens. The spying program was so invasive, even China criticized the US for violating basic human rights in the process last year. The latest revelations not only completely demolishes that argument, but also reveals that government spying goes far deeper than watching the traffic of Internet providers.

The story began on Thursday when the Guardian and the Washington Post published documents that show that the US government has compelled large Internet companies in the US to hand over personal information. The documents revealed that British and US government had access to that content. Some broadcasters – namely Canadian outlets like the CBC – responded by saying that while these documents are surprising, there is no controversy and a fact of life in a post 9/11 world.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who are among a long list of organizations who condemn this large invasion of privacy, swiftly responded to these revelations:

In plain language: the order gave the NSA a record of every Verizon customer’s call history — every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other “identifying information” for the phone and call — from April 25, 2013 (the date the order was issued) to July 19, 2013. The order does not require content or the name of any subscriber and is issued under 50 USC sec.1861, also known as section 215 of the Patriot Act.

There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel. It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least 7 years, and probably longer.

This type of untargeted, wholly domestic surveillance is exactly what EFF, and others, have been suing about for years. In 2006, USA Today published a story disclosing that the NSA had compiled a massive database of call records from American telecommunications companies. Our case, Jewel v. NSA, challenging the legality of the NSA’s domestic spying program, has been pending since 2008, but its predecessor, Hepting v. AT&T filed in 2006, alleged the same surveillance. In 2011, on the 10th Anniversary of the Patriot Act, we filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Justice for records about the government’s use of Section 215 – the legal authority the government was relying on to perform this type of untargeted surveillance.

But at each step of the way, the government has tried to hide the truth from the American public: in Hepting, behind telecom immunity; in Jewel, behind the state secrets privilege; in the FOIA case, by claiming the information is classified at the top secret level. In May 2011, Senator Ron Wyden, one of the few courageous voices fighting against the government’s domestic surveillance program, said this in a debate about reauthorizing Section 215:

I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.

The EFF then went on to demand a new Church Committee:

Following on the heels of the Guardian reporting that the NSA is collecting all US call data records of Verizon customers, the Guardian and Washington Post yesterday reported that nine of the biggest Internet companies, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, are also working with the government in a vast spying program, where a massive amount of online data flows to the NSA, all in secret.

The revelations not only confirmed what EFF has long alleged, they went even further and honestly, we’re still reeling. EFF will, of course, be continuing its efforts to get this egregious situation addressed by the courts.

But one thing is clear. Congress now has a responsibility to the American people to conduct a full, public investigation into the domestic surveillance of Americans by the intelligence communities, whether done directly or in concert with the FBI. And it then has a duty to make changes in the law to stop the spying and ensure that it does not happen again.

In short, we need a new Church Committee.

That doesn’t seem likely at this stage. The US government first responded by saying that these reports were inaccurate and even going so far as to outright deny some of the allegations. The government then described the whole scandal as merely “hype” and called the program as “Modest Encroachments On Privacy”.

In the midst of the back and forth, Anonymous leaked several documents on the NSA which apparently reveal that intelligence gathered through this program was shared all over the world as part of an intelligence network. You can see the pastebin post here.

One of those leaked documents says (PDF), “We are pursuing effective Net-Centric Operations, in part, by evolving the Department’s Global Information Grid (GIG) to facilitate widespread sharing of trusted information and rapid adaptation of forces to changing mission needs.”

The tech companies involved in the PRISM program have since struggled to retain credibility on the privacy file. From the Guardian:

Technology giants battled to maintain their credibility on privacy issues over the weekend as further details emerged of their co-operation with US spy agencies.

Apple, Facebook and Google issued strongly-worded denials that they had knowingly participated in Prism, a top-secret system at the National Security Agency that collects emails, documents, photos and other material for agents to review.

All said that they did not allow the government direct access to their systems and had never heard of the Prism programme. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, called press reports about Prism “outrageous”.

But after the publication by the Guardian of another slide from a top-secret NSA presentation and reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, it was becoming clear that some major technology companies have, at the very least, taken steps to make it easier for intelligence agencies to access the information they want.

Today, the whistleblower that sparked this latest privacy related revelations revealed himself. Edward Snowden said that when he saw the program, he felt that the starting of such programs should be decided by the American people and not decided on in secret. From the BBC:

The Guardian quotes Mr Snowden as saying he flew to Hong Kong on 20 May, where he holed himself up in a hotel.

He told the paper: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

Asked what he thought would happen to him, he replied: “Nothing good.”

He said he had gone to Hong Kong because of its “strong tradition of free speech”.

In response, the NSA is apparently launching a criminal inquirey into how the documents were leaked. From RT:

Shawn Turner, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the AP via email on Saturday that the NSA filed a criminal report with the Justice Department earlier this week over media leaks on PRISM.

US intelligence services are “doing an assessment of the damage that is being done to US national security by the revelation of this information, which is necessarily secret because the United States needs to be able to conduct intelligence activities without those methods being revealed to the world,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.

The investigation, which is “in early stages”, would imply close cooperation between the intelligence community and the Justice Department, Rhodes explained. A joint team of intelligence officers and government attorneys will evaluate the potential damage caused by these “very disturbing leaks of national security information.”

The government has a history when it comes to whisteblowers. When Bradley Manning allegedly leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables as well as the now infamous “collateral murder” video, the government was able to track him down and detained him in solitary confinement for so long that some have pointed out that his treatment amounts to torture just on the length alone let alone what else he allegedly had to endure.

I think that, at this stage, the government has no credibility on the privacy file. First, the government says that it’s simply protecting America, yes the evidence points to the contrary. Then, the government says that the wiretapping only targets foreign individuals, yet here we have proof that wiretapping targets all traffic. Now the government is saying that no one is listening in on your phone conversations when the evidence shows that they, indeed, are as part of a large dragnet program. The US government has provided absolutely no reason to believe it on anything related to privacy at this stage. The US government also has no leg to stand on if it accuses other governments around the world of violations of privacy and human rights either. When the US government or the NSA talks about any sort of widespread damage done by the leaks, the damage was ultimately self inflicted. If there was no program to leak information on like PRISM, then there would be no damage done in the first place. There is huge damage, but it was done by the NSA and the US government, not by the whisteblower in question. Any action the government takes on the whisteblower only damages the governments credibility further.

If this program was so great and wonderful and righteous, it should never have been a secret from the American people in the first place.

This story was originally published on ZeroPaid

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85

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