Telecommunications

Big Brother is here, and his name is PRISM

In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americans has been revealed (image: Shutterstock)
In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americans has been revealed (image: Shutterstock)
View 1 Image
In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americans has been revealed (image: Shutterstock)
1/1
In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americans has been revealed (image: Shutterstock)

If there was any doubt that George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was a prophetic piece of fiction, you can pretty much put that to rest. The more skeptical among us have claimed for years that, in the age of the internet, nobody has real privacy. During the last 24 hours, those fears emerged from the shadows. Details leaked of the secret US National Security Agency (NSA) program called PRISM, which may as well have been called Big Brother.

First came news from The Guardian that the NSA was collecting phone records from millions of Verizon customers under a top-secret government order:

    "The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries."
Then, in the last few hours, more layers were peeled back by The Washington Post:

    "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post."

The story continues to list the companies who allegedly gave the US government unfettered access to customer data (emphasis is ours):

    "Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: 'Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.'"

According to a series of alleged PowerPoint slides obtained by The Washington Post, Microsoft was the first to join the program, in September of 2007. The most recent addition was Apple, in October of 2012. Dropbox is reportedly "coming soon."

Interestingly, most of the companies named are responding to requests for comment by flat-out denying awareness or involvement. According to The Next Web, Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and Yahoo have all denied participation.

PRISM reportedly began collecting data in 2007, which means it was introduced under President Bush. However, The Washington Post says the program has experienced "exponential growth" under the Obama administration.

The slides reveal an annual budget of US$20 million for the program with data monitored by the program including e-mails, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data (presumably in the cloud), voice chats, file transfers, video conferences, log-in times, and social network profile details.

Although the program is supposedly aimed at surveillance of foreign targets, such as spies and terrorists, and is intended to take advantage of the fact that most of the world's data flows through the US, it is inevitable that data of US citizens is caught up in the mix. The NSA Powerpoint slides describe this as "incidental."

It shouldn't be too shocking that the US government spies on its citizens. What may be more surprising is just how far-reaching, and possibly unconstitutional, this program is. Perhaps the most significant part will be the fallout now that the secrets are out in the open.

Sources: The Guardian, The Washington Post [1] [2], The Next Web

35 comments
Raimo Kangasniemi
Considering that a lot of US folks seem to be pretty sanguine about US government on foreigners this way, as a foreigner I'm very happy that your dear government is of "equal opportunity" mindset here by extending the comfort of being spied upon by United States to it's own citizens. But remember, you voted for Bush, you voted for Obama and you voted for Congress members. We didn't get a vote. This is your fault.
Kong Ben
i don't understand what this privacy thing is all about... terrorist and criminals need to hide their data which is understandable. what is that a common US citizen wants to hide... NSA doesn't have time to look at each and every once private data... even if they look, do they come to your house and point finger at you. no. if some data is so private then why to upload it to internet. what will NSA get watching everyone's data, nothing. they are just trying to protect you by fishing out terrorist. think what will happen if NSA doesn't monitor all data... there will be 1000s of Boston bombing taking place. just for your privacy you are going to sacrifice so many brothers and sister's of your country. (English is not my first language)
Marina Fletcher
Fallout? There most likely won't be any. People quite fighting for their freedoms in most every country along time ago. In the U.S. this it was public knowledge the $2.7 billion NSA complex up in Utah was started last year. But thank you Will and Gizmag for having the courage to publish these new facts. The police state is already here. It started with allowing police to do random car searches, then moved into monitoring your phones without warrants, then because of the Boston bombing people were being thrown out of there homes on TV during unlawful searches. It was never going to be a quick drop and a sharp snap, rather a slow tightening of the rope until we suffocate. Worse yet, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was ratified last month to allow broader use of the military in the states without consent by the governors or president. The last breath now rests in the hands of gun control. People say if the military comes for you, you won't have a chance and I agree. But if the US military comes for the U.S. citizens it doesn't stand a chance, we out number them with guns by 300 to 1 although they are better organized. They are also made of many loyal brother's, sister's husband's, wife's, father's, mother's, and citizens who won't fight with their family's, neighbor's and friend's. Well so long as they don't train and use foreign troops and automated weapons like drones... Let's make sure it never goes this far (because hope hasn't been working much lately) by making sure congress understands our position, otherwise you can expect to be told to flee your house when there is an intruder (as they are told in the U.K.) rather then allowed to defend yourself and family.
John Laity
Is this news? CBS have done a 3 whole series on it: http://www.cbs.com/shows/person_of_interest/
Antonio Cristovao
What is shocking? You believe to be more than the rest of the world?!!!
bdodson
I cried for my country tonight.
Adriaan Brink
$20M doesnt seem like a lot of money for a program this far-reaching. I would doubt that its feasible to monitor that volume of data effectively with $20M
Tom Arr
Considering how much prostrating is done before other security themed posts here, it would be a bit hypocritical for Gizmag to get uppity about this program.
Dave B13
I'll bet every person working for an internet marketing company is laughing their heads off at how lame the NSA is.
citizenchan
I don't see what the big deal is. I'd rather have my chats and emails about coworker gossip and hanging out at Lake Erie glossed over by some computer algorithm if that means helping to stop people planning to harm others, than to have my private gossip emails about coworkers and hanging out at Lake Erie be the reason people died.