PRISM: The dark side of the US government?

The internet is in uproar over the US government monitoring citizens and international users through a “direct access” backdoor to the biggest companies, using a program codenamed PRISM.

Born out of the “Protect America Act” approved by Congress in 2007, the legislation allows warrantless interception of foreign-to-foreign communications. Created with the aim to protect from foreign threats; not monitor citizens.

Supposedly the system has instantaneous access to companies including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Skype, PalTalk, YouTube, and AOL. Already this has caused mistrust from consumers about the secretive practices by these corporations.

But really, should we be surprised? Anyone who really believed the US government wouldn’t have easy routes of access to anyone’s information, were only kidding themselves. The real issue here is how secretive both the government and these companies were about the access.

Direct access is something all involved are quick to deny. Here are their statements, in order; with the dates in brackets this leaked slide shows the company joined the program.

Microsoft (2007)

“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather data we don’t participate in it.”

Yahoo (2008)

“Yahoo! takes users' privacy very seriously; we do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."

Google (2009)

“From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door.”

Facebook (2009)

“Protecting the privacy of our users and their data is a top priority for Facebook. We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law”

Apple (2012)

“We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”

Personally I find it interesting Apple joined PRISM, which has been around since 2007, the very year after Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Likely this is just pure coincidence, but perhaps the historical CEO - who was oft seen as a slight “hippy” - had moral issues with the program?

The Washington Post, who first broke the story, claims “a career intelligence officer” leaked the slides because he believes the agency’s role to be a “gross intrusion on privacy”. Adding, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

As for success, the program is said to have provided data in 1,447 articles last year according to the leaked presentation, and used within one in seven intelligence reports.

This news breaks as it was laid bare Verizon is currently under a “short term” order to provide logs of any call information. It turns out, under the Patriot Act, the government stores every phone call made in the U.S – that’s 4,241 calls since introduced in October 26th.

James Clapper, the U.S Director of National Intelligence, has released a statement asking citizens to blindly trust the government respects privacy:

“By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling.”

On court handling, he adds: “The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.”

I’m suddenly a lot more worried about trusting any company with my data.

What do you think of PRISM and the U.S Governments handling of privacy? Are the reactions just, or are we all overreacting and this should be expected?

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