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What is the NSA's PRISM program? (FAQ)

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We now know that the NSA uses a program code-named PRISM to monitor private Web data. Sounds like "1984." What does it really mean?


You've heard about it, the top-secret surveillance program, code-named PRISM, that reportedly allows the National Security Agency to gain access to customer information held by Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Google, Facebook, and other Internet companies. Some people are freaking out; others don't see what the big deal is. It sounds a lot like "1984." But what does it really mean? To get a better understanding of PRISM and what it means to you as a consumer, we put together this FAQ.

What is PRISM?

It's a covert cybersecurity program started in 2007 by the NSA and the FBI to monitor the Internet data of "foreigners" using major U.S. Web sites. The secret program was first reported by The Washington Post, which received a leaked top-secret document detailing PRISM. It has now been acknowledged by the Obama administration.

It only monitors foreigners?

It apparently does not "intentionally" target American citizens or people living within America, but in reality it gives our government unparalleled access to our cybercommunications.


Is this the same as the data Verizon is giving to the NSA?

No. This is separate. The data Verizon gives to the NSA is merely metadata, so although the government can see who you call and how long you talk to them, they are not listening in on your voice mails and phone calls. But again, that's a separate NSA program. For more information on it, read this.

What type of data is monitored?

According to "slides and other supporting materials" obtained by The Washington Post: "e-mail, chat, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notifications of target activity...log-ins, etc., online social networking details" -- so, everything.

For instance, Google data includes "Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms."

The original report suggests that "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.

Can they read my iMessage?

Theoretically, yes. That is the kind of data the program has access to.

So someone has read my e-mail?

Aside from the fact that Google's algorithms crawl your e-mail all the time to target ads at you, "someone" within the NSA may have read your e-mails.

Which companies are involved?

Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, Google, Apple, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype. Dropbox is allegedly "coming soon." However, 98 percent of PRISM production is based on just Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft.

Why are the companies agreeing to be a part of it?

Maybe they aren't. All nine of them have explicitly denied that the government has "direct access" to their servers. The Post offers one possible explanation for the inconsistency:

It is possible that the conflict between the PRISM slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author. 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.

Why isn't Twitter a part of PRISM?

That's a very good question that no one seems to be able to answer right now.

Recently, Twitter earned higher marks for protecting your privacy than some of the PRISM-implicated companies did. At least some of Twitter's employees seemed genuinely shocked by the news.

Should I be outraged?

Probably! But maybe not. President Barack Obama addressed PRISM on Friday and essentially said, "Don't worry. You can trust us."

Who is to blame for this?

Well, let's let Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union sum it up. He is quoted by The New York Times as saying, "A pox on all the three houses of government. On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values."

Is it even legal?

Yes, under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 2008 and the Protect America Act of 2007. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement Thursday night saying that "Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States. It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States." FISA was renewed last year by Congress.

According to the Post, "Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues." When the story broke, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) released a letter they cowrote to the Justice Department expressing their concerns relating to the program.



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