• United States



America: Less land of the free, more home of the mass-surveilled

Jun 09, 20135 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

As the NSA/FBI Prism program datamines Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Skype, and the NSA forces Verizon to hand over millions of customers' phone records, America seems more like the land of privacy violations, home of the brave who are mass surveilled.

Unless you’ve been deserted on an island with no access to the outside world, then you’ve heard the news about the NSA project codenamed PRISM as first reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post. The Post included slides from the NSA PRISM PowerPoint presentation and then reported that PRISM “allegedly taps into the internal databases of nine major technology companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple.”

While there are more questions than answers about how the PRISM system works, it seems as if NSA queries are routed through the FBI’s surveillance unit before sucking data from Google, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, etc. Those companies tried to deny knowing anything about it. The Guardian added, “Microsoft – which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan ‘Your privacy is our priority’ – was the first, with collection beginning in December 2007.” PRISM collection for Apple did not begin until October 2012.

The Washington Post reported:

From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may “task” the system and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.

In another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers.

U.S. National Intelligence director James Clapper released two statements regarding the “unauthorized disclosure.” One was about the “numerous inaccuracies” in The Guardian and The Washington Post articles, but didn’t elaborate about those inaccuracies. “The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.” This statement did not use the word “privacy” at all.

Clapper’s second statement uses the word “privacy” four times, while also warning, “The unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.” He added, “Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions.” Seriously? The really, really bad guys, like Osama Bin Laden, know better than to use electronic communications via the Internet.

Clapper chastised the articles for omitting “key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection program is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties.” Could that be because it has all been a big, fat unverified-by-the-government secret until now? The government says it needs to stay a secret.

Clapper continued, “Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns. I believe it is important to address the misleading impression left by the article and to reassure the American people that the Intelligence Community is committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all American citizens.”

Americans are not reassured.

Senator Mark Udall previously warned, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” Udall now said he “did everything short of leaking classified information” to stop the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. “My concerns are that people need to know how the president interprets his authority under the Patriot Act…He said he was going to submit to transparency in the State of the Union…I expect him to uphold his commitment.”

Americans are naturally upset and lashed out in response to an unrelated White House tweet.

Before PRISM, The Guardian busted open a top secret court order that “requires Verizon on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’ to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.” Funny or Die worked up a new ad for Verizon’s “Share Everything (with the NSA) Plan,” and Slate connected the dots of Verizon’s old “Can you hear me now” commercials.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.