On Thursday, The Guardian and The Washington Post published highly-classified National Security Agency documents revealing a massive Internet surveillance program called PRISM. Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill write:
The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.
The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.
The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.
With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.
In short, there are three key revelations about the NSA/corporate relationship:
- Through PRISM, the NSA has direct access to company servers containing millions of Americans’ personal information.
- The NSA’s direct access to company servers is willing and participatory on those companies’ part.
- The NSA’s direct access to company servers is nevertheless unmediated by those companies. (Guardian: “But the Prism program renders [the consent of internet and telecom companies] unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.”)
One slight problem emerged after the program was announced: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and the other companies allegedly involved are all disputing the central assertion of these reports. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page, among others, both explicitly denied that they’ve provided “direct access” to their servers or data centers to PRISM or any other U.S. government surveillance program. As you’d expect for leaders of major corporations commenting on matters of national security, Zuckerberg and Page use the typical legal hedging — “we review each government request for data carefully” and so forth — but on direct access they’re all but categorical in denying it.
The direct access distinction matters because the true scope and nature of the program matters. In a companion editorial to his report, Glenn Greenwald — a man who has never exaggerated or misrepresented U.S. government programs or actions in his career — drew comparisons to the worst abuses of the Nixon administration when referring to PRISM and whistleblowing:
The times in American history when political power was constrained was when they went too far and the system backlashed and imposed limits. That’s what happened in the mid-1970s when the excesses of J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon became so extreme that the legitimacy of the political system depended upon it imposing restraints on itself.
According to a lone source, PRISM is a surveillance apparatus seemingly so vast, so invasive, and so unchecked that it directly threatens the Republic. Yet the tech companies themselves publicly and privately dispute that source’s key assertions. The Guardian itself can’t even find a single tech executive to confirm off-the-record that their company participated in the program or one similar to it or, most importantly, that the NSA had direct access to any of their servers.
PRISM’s existence has been independently confirmed but seemingly little else about its methods or capabilities has been independently verified beyond a single source. Both The Guardian and The Washington Post have substantially revised their original articles since first publishing them on Thursday and will likely continue to do so, although The Guardian‘s core allegations remain unchanged. Other outlets have also now raised the possibility that PRISM isn’t the sprawling, all-consuming domestic spying program the newspapers describe.
Silicon Valley’s denials and refutations could, of course, be the product of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy against American civil liberties. Or they could be telling the truth.