Shoot the surveillance messenger: NSA seeks criminal investigation into PRISM leaker

According to The Washington Post and The Guardian, a top-secret NSA project, codenamed PRISM, allegedly allows US Intelligence to gain access to user data on servers belonging to nine major tech companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. The Post included a few slides from a NSA PowerPoint presentation that explains the PRISM data-collection program. The source who leaked this top-secret information said “he believes his whistleblowing was worth whatever consequences are ahead.” The NSA filed a “crime report” almost immediately to “track down those responsible” for the "reckless disclosures" about PRISM.

PRISM-Gate, shoot the NSA surveillance messenger

According to the whistleblower:

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said. 

PRISM, NSA PowerPoint slide via the Washington Post

Documents for this top-secret program state “98% of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft; we need to make sure we don’t harm these sources.” Every one of those tech companies issued denials, but The New York Times reported on negotiations the companies had with the government:

In at least two cases, at Google and Facebook, one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said. 

However the Times said that all of the companies "drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders."

NBC News reported it had received confirmation “from two sources that the PRISM program exists, but a government official says it is a data collection program rather than a data mining program.” CNET was told that the PowerPoint presentation was misread. An anonymous official said, "It's not as described in the histrionics in The Washington Post or The Guardian. None of it's true. It's a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do."

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, released two statements, including one "on the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." He wrote:

The program does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber. The only type of information acquired under the Court’s order is telephony metadata, such as telephone numbers dialed and length of calls. The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications. Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time. The FISA Court specifically approved this method of collection as lawful, subject to stringent restrictions. 

Parts of the PRISM program were declassified in the “hope that it will help dispel some of the myths and add necessary context to what has been published." The NSA’s “crime report” will go to the Justice Department, which will decide whether or not to open an investigation. It seems highly likely the government will go after the leaker and claim that it must shoot the surveillance messenger in the name of national security. 

Google came out swinging after the accusations and insinuations that it had worked with the PRISM program. Google CEO Larry Page said, Google “has not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers.” Google Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger added:

Whatever the NSA was doing involving the mass harvesting of information, it did not involve being on the inside of Google. And I, personally, am by now disgusted with their conduct: the national security apparatus has convinced itself and the rest of the government that the only way it can do its job is to know everything about everyone. That’s not how you protect a country. We didn’t fight the Cold War just so we could rebuild the Stasi ourselves. 

Then David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer, said, “We cannot say this more clearly—the government does not have access to Google servers—not directly, or via a back door, or a so-called drop box. Nor have we received blanket orders of the kind being discussed in the media. It is quite wrong to insinuate otherwise.” Drummond continued, “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”

That tidbit set a fire under some Google users. For example, iPan Baal replied that the truth is still being twisted and a FISA court order could be gagging Google. "Furthermore, you keep saying 'in accordance with the law.' I don't think anyone has specifically said that PRISM  is technically illegal - all kinds of bullsh*t has been 'legal' since 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Is it still domestic spying? Hell yes. Is it still unconstitutional? Hell yes. Is it Orwellian? In the extreme."

This is far from the end of the PRISM-Gate, as the Justice Department will surely launch a rabid hunt to expose and to prosecute the leaker. It’s up to each American to decide what he or she thinks about the latest mass surveillance news and if the giant tech companies played any part in it.

As for the rest of the world, The Telegraph wrote:

You know all those bearded survivalist types holed up in places like Idaho with their paranoid anti-government conspiracy theories? Suddenly they're looking rather less paranoid. The revelation that the U.S. Government systematically taps online communications challenges the way we think about freedom, the way we think about privacy, the way we think about the Internet and, not least, the way we think about America.

Update: The Guardian reported, "The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell." Below is a video Q&A with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: 'I do not expect to see home again.'

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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