The NSA PRISM program has been the topic of much speculation and controversy in recent months as more and more revelations concerning the massive size and scope of the operation continue to emerge. For those that are unfamiliar with the PRISM data-collection program, it is a formerly classified government initiative that was launched in 2007 by the National Security Agency (NSA), along with participation by Britain’s equivalent agency known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Both agencies have been working in tandem to conduct mass data mining and electronic surveillance efforts by way of tapping into the servers of several large Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, and Facebook, among others.
The program was initiated in 2007 as part of a sweeping body of legislation that was put in place in order to ramp up anti-terrorist activities in the wake of the September 11th attacks. While most of the different laws and programs that paved the way for PRISM (e.g., the Patriot Act, the Protect America Act, the Terrorist Surveillance Program, etc.) were enacted under the Bush Administration, the primary legal basis for PRISM was actually the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was signed into law by President Carter in 1978. The passage of FISA afforded the government the right to conduct surveillance efforts (by either physical or electronic means) in order to collect intelligence information regarding potential terrorist or espionage activity. FISA has been amended multiple times since its inception, with one of the most important changes being made by way of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which allowed the NSA significant latitude in terms of being able to conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens without first obtaining a warrant. This issue of whether a warrant is required in order to obtain private data from U.S. citizens is still being hotly debated, as the technicalities of the FISA amendments make the boundaries of the government’s latitude difficult to determine.
According to official NSA documents, the purpose of the PRISM program is to collect stored (but also real-time) electronic data such as phone calls, emails, chat logs, video conferences, etc., to identify and analyze the communications activities of suspected foreign terrorists operating outside of the United States. According to U.S. government officials, the rationale for the PRISM program is to help prevent terrorist attacks and ensure the safety of the American people. Opponents of the PRISM program decry it as unconstitutional, labeling it as the equivalent of “digital eavesdropping” on private U.S. citizens.
The program was exposed to the public in July of 2013 when an NSA contractor named Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to journalists at The Guardian and The Washington Post. The documents included dozens of PowerPoint slides that offered detailed information regarding the NSA’s somewhat coercive partnership with major technology corporations such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and YouTube (among others), in order to engage in the large-scale collection of communications data from the users of these various companies’ services. A recently declassified October 2011 FISA court ruling disclosed further revelations, including the fact that the NSA paid millions of dollars to these various tech giants in order to assist them with coming into compliance with their data collection requirements.
Although PRISM operates under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the NSA to target (without warrant) the communication data of foreign nationals that are not believed to be on U.S. soil, Snowden’s documents revealed that domestic communications (e.g., phone calls, emails, etc.) initiated by U.S. citizens are also included in these massive data collection efforts. This could be the result of either a domestic citizen communicating with a foreign intelligence target, or it could be an inadvertent result of a flaw in the NSA’s data collection methods. This inability of the NSA to separate domestic from foreign communications is at the center of the debate, as it opens the door to a myriad of privacy violations. Snowden’s documents assert that these breaches of privacy rules have happened thousands of times over the period that PRISM has been active.
What would shock most people to learn is that this concept of domestic spying is nothing new, and it did not even start with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The roots of this massive government data collection go back to the early 1960s, when a project entitled ECHELON was developed by five signatory nations (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom) in order to monitor the diplomatic and military communications of the Soviet Union, as well as its Eastern Bloc allies, during the Cold War.
ECHELON utilizes elaborate radar equipment that is able to intercept various electronic transmissions such as phone calls, emails, satellite transmissions, faxes, etc. Several government facilities across the globe are equipped with massive, high-powered radomes (dome-shaped radars) that can intercept and, with the help of sophisticated computer software, analyze various communications data in order to search for key words, phrases or files that may be of particular interest to government intelligence agencies. ECHELON has grown significantly in size and scope since the 1960s, to the point now where it is referred to as a global interception system for practically all commercial and private communications.
ECHELON utilizes high-powered software to “sift” through trillions of bytes of data for intelligence gathering purposes, and it is able to analyze the content of these transmissions on a granular level. Several exposes have been published detailing how ECHELON is not only used for military and intelligence purposes, but it has also more recently been utilized for conducting corporate espionage such as gathering highly sensitive industrial or trade secrets from one country in order to pass them to another. Although the European Parliament issued a report containing several findings on ECHELON in May of 2001, the “official” existence of ECHELON has been all but denied by both the United States government and the UK government. Its existence has been much more concretely confirmed by the whistleblowing efforts of a handful of individuals including Duncan Campbell, who wrote a breakthrough article regarding ECHELON in a 1988 issue of the New Statesman, as well as by journalist Nicky Hager, who authored a book entitled Secret Power, which details the extent of the global surveillance system utilized by the NSA.
Although the general public has received a fair amount of insight into PRISM and ECHELON, the full extent and capability of these colossal surveillance programs is still largely unknown. As the line between the government efforts to enforce national security and the privacy rights of U.S. citizens continues to blur, it would behoove all of us to do as much research as we can to stay informed of the effects these surveillance programs may have on our individual liberties.