By Ryan Beckler, THELAW.TV
During the last week, revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) “PRISM” program have consistently made headlines across the country and even overseas. The story continued to become more detailed and complicated as the source of the leak, a 29-year-old technical assistant who has been working with the NSA for the last four years, delved further into the NSA’s covert operations this past weekend.
With updates coming seemingly by the hour, we’ll try to get you up to speed on the NSA, PRISM, and the man who came forward and uncovered one of the US government’s most secretive programs.
What is the NSA?
The National Security Agency, formed in 1952, has always been one of the Department of Defense’s most clandestine branches. Today, it operates some of the US government’s most secretive surveillance initiatives. Technically, the NSA is limited to gathering foreign intelligence, but there have been reported incidents of domestic surveillance in recent years (George Bush wiretapping in 2005).
What is PRISM?
Formed in 2007, PRISM is codename for a highly secret digital surveillance program that broadly gathers communications from nine American phone companies and Internet providers. By obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Supreme Court (FISC), the NSA has been granted access to email accounts, photos, chat history and other vast amounts of data from the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Apple, according to the Washington Post.
Who has oversight here?
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (and its amendments made after 9/11) grant the NSA broad authority to collect digital information and communications on “foreign powers” or “agents of foreign powers”, meaning overseas terrorists or even American citizens who may be suspected of domestic terrorism. In some capacity, Congress oversees the NSA, and in extension, oversees the operation of PRISM. Although an open vote never occurred to approve vast data collection, according to a Washington Post report, some members of Congress were briefed about PRISM 22 times between October 2011 and December 2012.
“There has been substantial provision of information to Congress, both — depending on the section we’re talking about of the Patriot Act — either to all members or to the appropriate committee members and leadership,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
Who’s the whistleblower?
29-year-old Edward Snowden. Working with the NSA for four years through private contractors, he told the Guardian he enjoyed “a very comfortable life”, but opted to reveal the top-secret government program as he sees it as a serious intrusion on American privacy.
“My motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” Snowden said in a video interview with the Guardian in a Hong Kong hotel. “I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
On Tuesday, Snowden’s then current employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, fired him “for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.” After checking out of his Hong Kong hotel room on Monday, his whereabouts (and future) are largely unknown.
Should Americans be concerned?
Well, it depends on whom you ask. The answers are mixed, even amongst lawmakers.
Mark Udall, a democratic senator from Colorado, believes this broad yet vast data collection infringes on the privacy of American citizens.
“…This sort of wide-scale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking,” he said.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama tried to quell fears at press conference last week, saying “[PRISM] does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living the United States.”
Brett Max Kaufman, the Nation Security Fellow of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes US citizens were deceived and should be alarmed about the government allegedly breaking down the walls of digital privacy.
“I think the average American is very concerned,” he said. “I think your typical American person thinks their privacy and files are protected, and apparently they are not.”
On the other hand, Jonathan Askin, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law specializing in Internet law, says the American people need to evaluate their needs and desires when it comes to future digital privacy, noting that millions have already seemingly waived a chunk of their privacy by disclosing information on various social networks.
“As 21st century citizens, what do we want our privacy rights to look like in the digital era? We haven’t really addressed that issue head on as a people yet,” Askin said. “With millions of people on Facebook, many of us have already made the determination that the abandonment of most of our privacy interests sets the goal for the added convenience afforded by online social networking.”
The ACLU vs. the Obama Administration
On Tuesday, the NSA and the Obama administration saw even more criticism as the ACLU filed a lawsuit over the government’s collection of phone records, arguing that the covert activity violates the First and Fourth Amendments. Within the suit, the ACLU aims to end this broad gathering of domestic cell phone data and hopes it can force the Obama administration to expunge any information already collected from past “Mass Call Tracking” activities.
“The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book—with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where,” the suit reads. “It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations.”
Read the full lawsuit filing here.