What Is PRISM? A Little Knowledge Helps You Prioritize Your Privacy

PRISM came about because of the Patriot Act, which was a reaction to 9/11. It is a program run by the National Security Agency (NSA), ostensibly to collect intelligence from foreign terrorists or from people working with foreign terrorists. That's an important distinction because it's illegal for the government to collect information on domestic citizens without a warrant. It's not as if the NSA doesn't know that. After all, it's the Fourth Amendment. The problem is that the NSA doesn't seem to care all that much about our constitutional rights when it comes to PRISM.

PRISM Defined

Before we leap into what PRISM is, let's talk about what the NSA does. Its mission is to collect foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT), glean useful information from that material, and then send the right info to the right people, the military, for example, or the President. The NSA is also the most important resource we have for cryptography (making and breaking codes).

What is SIGINT?

SIGINT refers to intelligence that the NSA collects by intercepting a signal. These signals could be Internet traffic, a landline telephone call, radio communications, even a fax. So, the NSA collects it, decodes it (if necessary), and then sends it to the appropriate agency. It's straightforward, right?

What is PRISM?

PRISM is one of the NSA's programs, and the NSA uses it to collect Internet communications in cooperation with (at least) eight major companies: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and Paltalk. (Note that some of these companies deny participation in PRISM at all, or allowing the NSA to have access to their servers.) This all sounds reasonable, up until this point. PRISM is actually extremely controversial. For one thing, the public was unaware of the program until someone named Edward Snowden came along. He worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor that works for the NSA. He's the one that blew the whistle on PRISM.

What Did PRISM Do?

How does PRISM works?

With this access, PRISM's intention is to collect vast amounts of information and then somehow target foreign terrorist communications specifically, ignoring all domestic communications, and most certainly not storing them. This is standard any time a U.S. agency conducting surveillance encounters domestic communications. It stops surveilling and then erases the information collected, because it's unconstitutional to do anything else. Many experts agree that this type of mass surveillance is indeed in violation of the constitution; the NSA disagrees.

NSA vs. The Constitution

The Fourth Amendment gives Americans the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects," and it protects them from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Search and seizure is only permitted with a warrant issued under probable cause, and only if the warrant is "particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." This is all the complete and total opposite of what PRISM was doing, and when Snowden realized what was going on, he was appalled. He voiced his concerns to his chain of command, to his colleagues, to supervisors, anyone who would listen. The NSA was collecting information about American citizens without a warrant. It was not deleting this information; in fact, it was storing it in searchable databases.

Why did Edward Snowden care so much about PRISM?

It wasn't just the fact that the Fourth Amendment was being violated that shocked Snowden. It was the incredible scope of the violation, namely millions upon millions of files violating the privacy of the American people, and available for the entertainment of any analyst with the right clearance. Every embarrassing 2 a.m. Google search… every photo you've ever emailed or backed up, even if you never publicly posted it. When his complaints went unanswered, Snowden felt he had to act: he leaked an alleged 1.7 million of those documents to the press. The NSA and the U.S. government labeled him a traitor, and he fled the country.

Is PRISM Technically Illegal?

Snowden wasn't the first to have suspicions that the NSA might be overstepping its bounds. Before it even knew PRISM existed, Congress was concerned with the way the NSA might be applying surveillance laws. So, it summoned the Director of National Intelligence for a United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. There, it asked Mr. Clapper a very, very simple question, under oath: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper's response was, "No, sir." Just three months later, Snowden released damning evidence to the contrary. This level of deception indicates that even the NSA must have felt on some level that PRISM was taking it too far, and was not handling citizens' Internet information with integrity. Moreover, if it weren't for Snowden, we probably still wouldn't know about it. After all, the Director of National Intelligence was willing to commit perjury to deny its existence. It seems irrefutable that the NSA is violating at least the Fourth Amendment and perhaps the First Amendment as well. So, how does it justify what it's still doing? There is a nifty little clause in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This clause says, essentially, that the NSA needs a warrant, unless it feels the information is important to national security. The NSA says it is and feels that's enough.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

First, you want to ensure that your Internet communications are encrypted. The best and easiest way to do this is by using a VPN. A VPN offers you other protections as well; for one, it obscures your IP address, which means it's difficult to trace traffic back to you. Well, it's difficult as long as the vendor doesn't keep any logs of personal information, such as is the case with ZenMate. A VPN can't keep the NSA from forcing companies to comply, but it can help you provide it with less data to start with, and it can keep your data from interception.

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