The Guardian and The Washington Post have both been leaked a 41-slide NSA presentation on a program called PRISM, which -- according to the slides -- gives the spy agency (part of the US military) "direct access" to the servers of the biggest Internet companies in America, including Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo and Skype. The papers have released three slides (reproduced above). The presentation dates from April 2013, and is marked "top secret with no distribution to foreign allies" and is claimed to be part of training material for new spies.
The papers go on to describe some of the other parts of the presentation, including a claim of "strong growth" in the spy agency's access to the companies' servers in 2012: up 248% for Skype, 131% for Facebook and 63% for Google. They also describe slides that walk through parts of the presentation that detail the changes in American surveillance law that makes this allegedly legal -- a shift in the standard for surveillance from "confirmations that both the sender and receiver of a communication were outside the US" to "anyone 'reasonably believed' to be outside the USA." This is celebrated by the authors of the presentation, who describe this as America's "home-field advantage."
Ars Technica's Cyrus Farivar spoke to representatives of some of the companies named in the presentation, who claimed ignorance of the program. Farivar followed up with Kurt Opsahl from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who said,
"Whether they know the code name PRISM, they probably don't," he told Ars. "[Code names are] not routinely shared outside the agency. Saying they've never heard of PRISM doesn't mean much. Generally what we've seen when there have been revelations is something like: 'we can't comment on matters of national security.' The tech companies responses are unusual in that they're not saying 'we can't comment.' They're designed to give the impression that they're not participating in this."
All this confirms much of what has long been suspected by people who follow this stuff, but it's still profoundly disheartening. The spies have run amok, they won't even tell the governments they notionally work for what they think the law says, and the "most transparent" president in history has doubled down on GW Bush's surveillance smorgasbord. But Danny O'Brien has some heartening thoughts:
Surprised, upset, angry, people are people I feel a bond with and sympathy. I can understand when people believe they are not surprised, although that sounds to me more like a coping strategy; I struggle a bit more with the “surprised that others are surprised” response, because that just makes you sound dismissive of others’ ignorance, while exhibiting your own. It does no good to be aware of technical surveillance, while not knowing how most other people think of it.
I really don’t agree with the people who think “We don’t have the collective will”, as though there’s some magical way things got done in the past when everyone was in accord and surprised all the time. It’s always hard work to change the world. Endless, dull hard work. Ten years later, when you’ve freed the slaves or beat the Nazis everyone is like “WHY CAN’T IT BE AS EASY TO CHANGE THIS AS THAT WAS, BACK IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. I GUESS WE’RE ALL JUST SHEEPLE THESE DAYS.”
You have to work hard to stop a war that kills a few hundred thousand instead of millions. You have to work hard to stop massive surveillance, instead of genocides. It’s all hard. Things can still get better. Disappointment is the price of wanting a better world.You need to stop being surprised that no-one else is fighting for it, and start being surprised you’re not doing more.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.