When somebody mentions the term ‘prism’, you may think of a triangular object, and you’d be correct. But in 2017, the term PRISM has taken on a whole new meaning, with implications greater than the pyramids of Egypt. If you want to be in tune with the world of modern conspiratorial thought and what is known as just plain fact about what types of information the government is collecting and how it is collecting it via its dragnet surveillance tactics, you must begin with PRISM.
While the origins of electronic eavesdropping date back to the origins of the NSA, and we know that American companies have been in bed with the agency since the 1970s, the PRISM program first saw implementation in 2007. While the government has been secretively conducting surveillance on American citizens since then, it was Edward Snowden – a 29-year-old former NSA employee – who revealed the details of the PRISM program through reporters at the Guardian and Washington Post. Were it not for him, it’s impossible to tell how long the American public would have remained oblivious to the extent to which their own government is eavesdropping on not only their communications, but electronic searches and movements.
So what, exactly, does the PRISM program entail?
The first major revelation to be made public via the initial Snowden leak was that millions of Americans’ phone records were being collected from Verizon without apparent cause. The order gave the NSA information on ‘all telephone calls in its systems’ on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’, according to the Glenn Greenwald report. The implications of this were broad.
‘The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI's request for its customers' records, or the court order itself.’
The order to conduct this collection was granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as a FISA court, characterized by some as a secret, alternate judicial system whose existence and rulings the average American citizen had remained completely unaware of. While these courts are now in the public consciousness, most of their rulings remain secretive, at least until they are exposed by an insider or eager journalist.
While the Verizon collection did show that information about Americans’ communications was being collected and stored indiscriminately and in bulk, it was the tip of the iceberg in terms of invasiveness and scope. Not only phone calls, but emails, documents, photographs and other sensitive users’ data stored in major company servers could now be collected ‘legally’. These companies include Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and Dropbox who ‘give the NSA direct access to its users’ information’.
You really can’t get more invasive or all-encompassing than that. Consider your daily routine, which of these services you use, and what type of information you disseminate through these companies’ services. Then, consider that the NSA has access to all of it.
In a nutshell, that is PRISM.
But why did it start?
Like many controversial surveillance programs, both domestic and abroad, the PRISM program was proposed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. It was ‘launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s domestic surveillance programs’, but eventually several lawsuits led to its abandonment. Or so most thought.
Eventually, Congress OK’d the passage of the PRISM program under the Protect America Act in 2007, while ‘the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 gave legal immunity to private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S Intelligence agencies.’ And thus, the aforementioned list of companies was legally protected from joining in on the spying party. Microsoft led the way in complying, immediately granting access to its servers, and the rest of the companies would follow in due time.
Even those that did not want to cooperate with the PRISM program eventually found that they had no choice. Many tried, and ultimately failed.
‘In 2008, Congress gave the Justice Department authority to compel a reluctant company to “comply” with the needs of PRISM. This means that even companies that were not willing to join the program voluntarily had to do so at the behest of a court order.’ (Cloud Wars)
It was found that the NSA’s reliance on PRISM has proven massive, with one in seven intelligence reports relying upon information gathered through PRISM programs. Eventually, this mass data collection – which began with mere call records – would expand into wiretapping of calls, giving the NSA access to the content of the calls themselves through direct eavesdropping.
On April 25, 2013, the FISA court granted the order that would tangentially allow ‘the NSA [to] crack cellphone encryption, so it can easily decode the content of intercepted calls and messages.’ And, indications only hint that these programs will continue to expand.
‘The report also states that the NSA made a similar arrangement with Internet service providers to obtain data about emails and browsing history of all individuals. A recent decision by the U.S. Senate will compound this breach of privacy by ISPs, as they will not just be working with the NSA but also with commercial third parties to sell customer data.’ (Cloud Wars)
The FISA Renewal Act, which allowed for the NSA to essentially collect what it pleases, as court precedent has shown, is said to be in the ‘home stretch’ of being passed as of December 2017. The new version is dubbed the ‘FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017’, or the ‘HPSCI bill’, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pushed for permanent renewal of such a bill.
While PRISM was established in the name of protecting Americans from terrorism, it is not limited to the targeted collection of data on credible, terror-related suspects that many were led to believe was the aim of surveillance post-9/11. Far from it, it is indiscriminate collection of and access to the most innocuous and sensitive of data on devices and services which cover virtually every American citizen. This is PRISM, and it is here to stay.