If there was any doubt that George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was a prophetic piece of fiction, you can pretty much put that to rest. The more skeptical among us have claimed for years that, in the age of the internet, nobody has real privacy. During the last 24 hours, those fears emerged from the shadows. Details leaked of the secret US National Security Agency (NSA) program called PRISM, which may as well have been called Big Brother.
First came news from The Guardian that the NSA was collecting phone records from millions of Verizon customers under a top-secret government order:
- "The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries."
Then, in the last few hours, more layers were peeled back by The Washington Post:
- "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post."
The story continues to list the companies who allegedly gave the US government unfettered access to customer data (emphasis is ours):
- "Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: 'Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.'"
According to a series of alleged PowerPoint slides obtained by The Washington Post, Microsoft was the first to join the program, in September of 2007. The most recent addition was Apple, in October of 2012. Dropbox is reportedly "coming soon."
Interestingly, most of the companies named are responding to requests for comment by flat-out denying awareness or involvement. According to The Next Web, Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and Yahoo have all denied participation.
PRISM reportedly began collecting data in 2007, which means it was introduced under President Bush. However, The Washington Post says the program has experienced "exponential growth" under the Obama administration.
The slides reveal an annual budget of US$20 million for the program with data monitored by the program including e-mails, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data (presumably in the cloud), voice chats, file transfers, video conferences, log-in times, and social network profile details.
Although the program is supposedly aimed at surveillance of foreign targets, such as spies and terrorists, and is intended to take advantage of the fact that most of the world's data flows through the US, it is inevitable that data of US citizens is caught up in the mix. The NSA Powerpoint slides describe this as "incidental."
It shouldn't be too shocking that the US government spies on its citizens. What may be more surprising is just how far-reaching, and possibly unconstitutional, this program is. Perhaps the most significant part will be the fallout now that the secrets are out in the open.