It has been revealed that the National Security Agency has been employing PRISM, a $20-million-per-year program that monitors the movement of individuals through digital data, for roughly six years. PRISM has gained access to private information and online correspondence through nine technology companies here in the U.S. The USA PATRIOT Act and the Protect America Act of 2007 (PAA) opened the door for this surveillance program to take shape.
President Obama and the NSA have been criticized for a lack of transparency and the program’s assumed targeting of American citizens. The president said during a press conference on Friday that PRISM does not target American citizens or those living in the U.S., stating, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls” and “They are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content.” The surveillance program was structured to exclusively monitor correspondence between foreign individuals—solely the lines of communication between these individuals that pass through the U.S.
PRISM may not be the top-secret program of government overreach that many are trying to portray it as. The program is lawful (as long as American citizens and individuals in the U.S. are not monitored) under PAA, and for six years the entire program was fully recognized by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The NSA still must have a reasonable cause for intercepting communications, appeal to a federal court and gain permission to monitor any correspondence—all of which include Congressional oversight.
The NSA recently declassified a slideshow that outlines PRISM on a very basic level. This is what is currently known about the surveillance program: There were a total of nine technology companies included in PRISM—Microsoft in September, 2007, Yahoo in March, 2008, Google, Facebook, and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in September, 2010, Skype and AOL in early 2011, and Apple in October of 2012.
While officials from AOL, PalTalk, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple have all denied any knowledge of PRISM or working with the U.S. government on such a program, the NSA would still be within legal parameters if they monitored any data from these companies with a court order.
According to the PRISM slideshow, the types of materials they seek are email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP (phone calls made over the internet), file transfers, video conferencing, log-ins, time stamps, and any information provided on social networking sites.
The NSA slideshow makes three points defining the necessity of such a program: “Much of the world’s communications flow through the U.S.,” “A target’s phone call, email or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path—you can’t always predict the path,” and “Your target’s communications could easily be flowing into and through the U.S.”
Basically, what we’ve learned about the NSA and PRISM is nothing new. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said of PRISM, “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this, and to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information.” In other words, these actions have been lawfully taking place for six years and were approved by Congress with the effortless passages of the PATRIOT Act in 2001 and the Protect America Act in 2007.
The picture that is being painted of PRISM—a secretive surveillance program that unlawfully delves into the average American’s private life—is misleading. PRISM, if carried out properly, is only used to monitor suspicious patterns of communications abroad. If individuals choose to use means of communication that are based here in the U.S., the U.S. government, with the proper court approval, is entirely within its rights to seek out information it deems necessary for national security purpose—as long as Congress continues to authorize the laws that allow such programs.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky