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Big Brother is here, and his name is PRISM

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June 6, 2013

In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americ...

In a series of bombshell leaks, the extent of the US government's alleged spying on Americans has been revealed (image: Shutterstock)

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.

Sources: The Guardian, The Washington Post [1] [2], The Next Web

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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35 Comments

Considering that a lot of US folks seem to be pretty sanguine about US government on foreigners this way, as a foreigner I'm very happy that your dear government is of "equal opportunity" mindset here by extending the comfort of being spied upon by United States to it's own citizens.

But remember, you voted for Bush, you voted for Obama and you voted for Congress members. We didn't get a vote. This is your fault.

Raimo Kangasniemi
6th June, 2013 @ 08:54 pm PDT

i don't understand what this privacy thing is all about... terrorist and criminals need to hide their data which is understandable. what is that a common US citizen wants to hide... NSA doesn't have time to look at each and every once private data... even if they look, do they come to your house and point finger at you. no. if some data is so private then why to upload it to internet.

what will NSA get watching everyone's data, nothing. they are just trying to protect you by fishing out terrorist.

think what will happen if NSA doesn't monitor all data... there will be 1000s of Boston bombing taking place. just for your privacy you are going to sacrifice so many brothers and sister's of your country.

(English is not my first language)

Kong Ben
7th June, 2013 @ 12:19 am PDT

Fallout? There most likely won't be any. People quite fighting for their freedoms in most every country along time ago. In the U.S. this it was public knowledge the $2.7 billion NSA complex up in Utah was started last year. But thank you Will and Gizmag for having the courage to publish these new facts.

The police state is already here. It started with allowing police to do random car searches, then moved into monitoring your phones without warrants, then because of the Boston bombing people were being thrown out of there homes on TV during unlawful searches. It was never going to be a quick drop and a sharp snap, rather a slow tightening of the rope until we suffocate. Worse yet, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was ratified last month to allow broader use of the military in the states without consent by the governors or president. The last breath now rests in the hands of gun control.

People say if the military comes for you, you won't have a chance and I agree. But if the US military comes for the U.S. citizens it doesn't stand a chance, we out number them with guns by 300 to 1 although they are better organized. They are also made of many loyal brother's, sister's husband's, wife's, father's, mother's, and citizens who won't fight with their family's, neighbor's and friend's. Well so long as they don't train and use foreign troops and automated weapons like drones...

Let's make sure it never goes this far (because hope hasn't been working much lately) by making sure congress understands our position, otherwise you can expect to be told to flee your house when there is an intruder (as they are told in the U.K.) rather then allowed to defend yourself and family.

Marina Fletcher
7th June, 2013 @ 12:25 am PDT

Is this news? CBS have done a 3 whole series on it:

http://www.cbs.com/shows/person_of_interest/

John Laity
7th June, 2013 @ 02:25 am PDT

What is shocking? You believe to be more than the rest of the world?!!!

Antonio Manuel Santos Cristovao
7th June, 2013 @ 02:26 am PDT

I cried for my country tonight.

bdodson
7th June, 2013 @ 02:46 am PDT

$20M doesnt seem like a lot of money for a program this far-reaching. I would doubt that its feasible to monitor that volume of data effectively with $20M

Adriaan Brink
7th June, 2013 @ 03:18 am PDT

Considering how much prostrating is done before other security themed posts here, it would be a bit hypocritical for Gizmag to get uppity about this program.

Tom Arr
7th June, 2013 @ 05:40 am PDT

I'll bet every person working for an internet marketing company is laughing their heads off at how lame the NSA is.

Dave B13
7th June, 2013 @ 06:09 am PDT

I don't see what the big deal is. I'd rather have my chats and emails about coworker gossip and hanging out at Lake Erie glossed over by some computer algorithm if that means helping to stop people planning to harm others, than to have my private gossip emails about coworkers and hanging out at Lake Erie be the reason people died.

citizenchan
7th June, 2013 @ 08:06 am PDT

Is it possible to DDoS the NSA?

Gotcha
7th June, 2013 @ 09:06 am PDT

Its not the Governments business. If they were worried about terrorists, then they would patrol the boarders. If they were worried about bombings, then they would stop letting illegals into our country by the thousands and millions. The Government doesnt care, it just wants to "be seen" to care. The Governments biggest threat, which they are trying to get rid of is the indepence minded person who doesnt want to to the government line.

yinfu99
7th June, 2013 @ 09:22 am PDT

I'd write something, but then the NSA would read it and pester me. If they own the grid, leave the grid. Duh.

KMH
7th June, 2013 @ 09:56 am PDT

Truth does not fear investigation.

If they want to scan my electronic communication, phone calls included, who gives a rip? Hell if they come and ask to search my house, I'd be happy to oblige as long as they don't leave it a big mess. I think it's funny how some people think that they matter so much that the government is actually interested in them. Sorry, your mundane life just isn't that interesting. Mine either. Unless you say things that would make them think you are a terrorist or going to hurt somebody, you go in one end of a computer and right back out the other end. Quit crying.

chomper
7th June, 2013 @ 10:03 am PDT

'Remo Kangasniemi', The Legend ends.

I love these paranoid, delusional responses to the great 'Conspiracy'. The world is so vastly different than what Orwell predicted. Blair's waking nightmare thankfully did not warp our dreams; though I do admit that it came close. The lightspeed evolution of modern society is creating a reality that will soon supersede any and every thing that the few who dare to think can even imagine. An entire, unprecedented and ultimately unforeseeable society is emerging from the chaos of 10000 years of trial, error, repeat to destruction.

When a man is dying of thirst, give him a drink. If you plunge that dehydrated individual to the bottom of Lake Tahoe, he would quickly drown but for the instantaneous, fatal compression of all that water. In either eventuality, he would be dead. If, and now when, insectoid bureaucrats are deluged with all of the information about everything all of the time, said bureaucrats are in the same evolutionary dilemma as the ant confronting a M1 Abrams.

They are, at best, a few tens of thousands of individuals on this amazing planet who can see the outlines of what is happening. An even smaller number actually make constructive input. Input that aids this emerging reality. No one and no thing can control it. Rote, blind, bureaucrats cannot, like the aforemnetioned ant, have any functional access to understanding 'too much information coming too fast'. In reality, to repeat, such people cannot even see, much less alter, the events changing everything that surrounds them.

Robert Walther
7th June, 2013 @ 11:25 am PDT

I have to say it doesn't really bother me. If they used it to enforce a police state to enforce every law out there it would bother me. They could ticket me for admitting to speeding, but that's not what this is about.

Unless we're willing to go kill everyone who could be a terrorist, something like this is needed. I've heard for years that the NSA tracked pretty much everything and flags went off if someone said jihad, bomb or any other of dozens of catch words or phrases likely to be used by terrorists.

So what? If there hadn't been things like this in place, I guarantee you that many, many terrible things would have happened since 9/11. Maybe things even worse than that day.

If they used this for any little thing, you know how many pot growers, heroin users, drunk drivers, tax cheaters, thieves and every other type of criminal would be gone? The fact that there haven't been mass arrests involving millions of people proves that they're not using this for just anything.

dandrews1138
7th June, 2013 @ 11:28 am PDT

Yinfu99 has got it right. True Terr0rists mostly communicate via carrier, word of mouth, FedEx, regular mail or coded email. So who is this law really for? Do you feel safer know than when we didn't have these laes in place?

Say you want to protest the gov't. They now have the ability to arrest you before or after the event on information they find from your communications no matter how minor. You could say something sarcastically as a joke when your 18. It can now be stored and taken out of context and used against you when your 40. Just look at the statements the OSU president made. They were meant as jokes but are being used against him to remove him from office.

The point is information about you can be used against you. Ask any:

Jews from Germany who lived there in the 40's.

Chinese under Japanese rule in the 40's.

Jews from Russia who lived there in the 50's.

Muslims from India who lived there in the 60's.

Christians from Iran who lived there in the 80's.

Muslims from Serbia who lived there in the 90's.

Christians from Iran who lived there in the 80's.

Christians from Liberia who lived there in the 90's.

Christians from Libya who live there today.

The list goes on and on.

Matt Fletcher
7th June, 2013 @ 11:38 am PDT

Hi there NSA!

I don't mind you checking me out as long as you check out your fellow spooks and all the corrupt politicians, bankers, judges and corporate types that are looting the public treasury. And then share all the information with the public. Don't keep it to yourselves where it can be used against us by these same aholes.

We the people can stop these terrorist oligarchs. If we knew what they were up to, we could all be heroes and blow the whistle on these criminals like Manning and Assange did.

ezeflyer
7th June, 2013 @ 11:53 am PDT

@CitizenChan that’s a false and dangerous argument. Seriously.

http://falkvinge.net/2012/07/19/debunking-the-dangerous-nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-fear/

asdf
7th June, 2013 @ 12:27 pm PDT

Have to agree with Adriaan Brink: $20 million/year will not do the job! Would that even cover lunch for all the people working on this?

ralph.dratman
7th June, 2013 @ 12:34 pm PDT

for everyone who lacks the understanding of how this will progress and unfold, this is just the beginning of the government's invasion into a world they have no rights to. They set up these programs under the radar until they become generally accepted, and after further developments in technology, will have access to every thought you would want to share. You think paper will be an accessible medium to convey thoughts to other people? Not just thoughts about coworker gossip but possibly thoughts about an overreaching government. What will be allowed and what will come under the heading of "threat to homeland security"? Some may say that you still have the freedom to be offline and write whatever you want, but (what) if the next step is a program on your computer to record keystrokes? If it were to happen to our previous generation that the postal service opened every letter as a matter of "national security" the public would be up in arms. This isn't to say that these programs haven't protected people from terrorism, etc. , but the risk of this power falling into corrupt hands and the loss of liberty as a result does not justify its use. As Marina Fletcher said, its "a slow tightening of the rope until we suffocate", and they're still laying the rope.

Ian Alexander Neil Madden
7th June, 2013 @ 01:18 pm PDT

Troubling issue with lots of interesting comments! I think at least for this moment what concerns me about this anti-civil libertarian direction is it implies some of our leaders think we will need this to protect ourselves. That implies policies of an aggressive nature both foreign and domestic going forward. Was it Bush or Obama (or both) that was elected as a non-aggressive candidate?

I too can think of nothing I do that would cause concern for anyone especially anyone in government. But than I suppose reporters (AP, Fox) just doing their jobs or citizens just doing their civic duty (Tea Party and others) didn't see their actions as anything but positive for civil society. It remains hackneyed but true "when they came for the Jews I didn't protest.......... and than it was too late."

doug5380
7th June, 2013 @ 02:23 pm PDT

Of all the comments, I find the one by rgwalther to be far and away the most intelligent and forward thinking.

Our totalitarian world is self imposed. The majority look to authority figures for security. The sovereign man is rare. He goes about his life quietly, trying to avoid the control others take for granted. Until he is in the majority, he will be endangered, and so will our species. Our species survival depends on our maturing psychologically. The dependence on others to do our thinking is infantile. Deference to authority is expected of young children and encouraged. The change from dependent to independent is stunted by so-called education, and discouraged by our culture. But the longing for independence cannot be repressed completely. It is in our nature to be a free thinking person, despite the indoctrination of school and church. This desire can be seen in the popular art forms, such as movie heros who rebel against authority. This respect for individuality was once expressed by the proud American as Yankee Ingenuity. Not so much anymore. But human nature cannot be denied or suppressed by repressive cultures without causing violence and rebellion. The conflict will be resolved with the victory of individualism or species extinction. No compromise will work.

Don Duncan
7th June, 2013 @ 02:43 pm PDT

Those who would sacrifice liberty for security will wind up with neither liberty nor security.

JAT
7th June, 2013 @ 06:56 pm PDT

Or:

You can have peace or you can have freedom, but don't count on having both. (From the notebooks of Lazarus Long)

Dennis Learned
7th June, 2013 @ 11:16 pm PDT

When approached with the topic of surveillance, most people are fed through the mainstream the idea that it is all for terrorism, and are stuck on that topic. I always tend to think that most everything shown on the news is really a slight of hand to make us look the other direction while something else is happening. I use this logic because nothing has shown me that I can trust government. I can't trust a magician, knowing I'm going to get fooled, so I use this logic for everything the government does.

Terrorism, has destroyed nations, not from physical damage, but psychological damage. The perceived sense of fear will cause people to act illogically. Wars were started, and people bought in, literally. Ever since 9/11, our rights have been dwindled, and every time some raises their voice to warn people, the rest of the world scoffs, and make those people seem paranoid. Then it happens again and again. Still, people deny the truth, saying we should have nothing to hide. Then a truth like the NSA news comes out and throws a wrench into everything. But what happens, people are still backing governments. There hasn't been a terrorist attack in over ten years, why do they need so much information? Look outside the box, what is the other hand doing? These are the questions that should be asked. Think. Simply think for yourselves. Take all mainstream media out of the equation, research everything on your own, and you'll find that more has been going on. This is just a tiny tip of the gigantic iceberg.

The information they are collecting is not for terrorism, it is for us. All the metadata they have tells more than just simple numbers and addresses, it reveals what we eat, what we drive, where we watch movies, what we buy at the grocery store, if you take all the data from facebook alone, you can track and know almost everything about everyone on there. Who benefits from this information? The government, because now they can use it all against us in the simplest of ways. Advertisements work the same way, know everything about the consumer, and you can literally put a product into the hands of a consumer and they won't second guess about paying for it. Brand affiliation can be switched with political parties and politicians, and the government can use that information against us and sell us anything, because they will know exactly how we think. So all of you saying you have nothing to hide, believe me, think of your whole day in 24 hours what do you do? Now think what you would be okay sharing, and what you wouldn't? Do want people to know how many shits you took, or if you masturbated that day, or even your menstruation cycles? This is information they can mine from phone records, facebook, emails, and you think they care about terrorism?

The state is there because we asked it to be, because when we get lazy, we like to delegate the things we don't want to deal with to somebody else. Now, people have lost what liberty truly is, what responsibility truly is, what privacy truly is, and these things are disappearing, because we have followed along blindly, never testing the waters. I weep for the future.

vanburen08
8th June, 2013 @ 01:17 am PDT

My question is whom does the NSA really work for - the common citizen or an elite organization? And what mechanism makes sure that it is not highjacked by a malicious entity? With power comes responsibility and I can't see responsibility if they keep everything secret...

GoodLife03
8th June, 2013 @ 06:56 am PDT

actually JAT, the quote is :

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Benjamin Franklin

and here are a couple others to think about:

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.

Thomas Jefferson

Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.

Ronald Reagan

kellory
8th June, 2013 @ 09:53 am PDT

1. Freedom is an illusion. For every liberty you gain, you must surrender a liberty. If you want total personal freedom you must surrender law and its protections. If you want the rule of law and greatest chance for personal/family safety you must surrender personal freedom. The question is how each society chooses to balance the too. Remember the only person that can have absolute personal freedom and security at the same time must live as the life of a hermit in the wilderness. As your society grows more complex the rule of law must increase.

2. I think the surveillance for security purposes is reasonable. Individuals such as Timothy McVeigh show that Americans are willing to engage in terrorism on Americans.

3. Can the government sift though all the communications? I do not know if it is possible on a budget of $20 million but, I certainly do not consider it impossible. It simply depends on the algorithm used and the computing power provided.

4. If you are paranoid on this point, drop you cell phone (actually drop all phone service), drop your smart television, buy an old car prior to the inclusion of the black box, empty your bank accounts, close all your credit accounts including paying off your home mortgage, live life on a cash basis only, get rid of cable and internet, and do all communications with others via face to face or with old fashioned mail using private cyphers based on something like a substitution based on a large text and always continuing from where you last stopped (sort of like a secret decoder ring only with the position of the wheel changing with every letter.

5. If less radical, simply do not post things you do not want known, now or in the future. Do not even post all your friends and acquaintances. Lock you computers. Disconnect from the internet when not using it.

6. For me, I live in the middle most happily. I do not tell what I consider private. The government is welcome to all records of my communications, my bank accounts, lists of friends, and even to tap my phone for when I vent. I have nothing to hide, and though I have regrets, I fear no inspection of my life. Try to life a life without undo passions, you do not have to fear.

NatalieEGH
9th June, 2013 @ 01:20 am PDT

I am much more worried about China than the "PRISM". I spend most of my web time wondering if the stuff on the screen in front of me is authentic or a total fabrication.

Reading the above comments leaves me with the impression that the web is being overtaken by gutless loudmouth paranoia-peddlers.

nutcase
9th June, 2013 @ 10:12 pm PDT

Boring.

The next step anyone dishonest will take is to flood the system with variations of real information, thereby making anything real worthless.

Kevin Cloete
10th June, 2013 @ 02:12 am PDT

Dave, I think you have the only sane response here. It's not so much that we should trust the government, as that it's just a drop in the bucket compared to what we really should be worried about.

Also, is anyone else looking forward to "Watch Dogs" even more after this news broke?

Phyzzi
10th June, 2013 @ 09:56 am PDT

People can't seriously be OK with this? I really do understand the need to monitor terrorist suspects and I believe that the government is probably using the systems this way but what about in the future.

Once this becomes officially legal and widely accepted by the community the government might eventually begin to use it for more trivial reasons and has a huge likelihood of being manipulated and abused e.g. In Australia when speed cameras were first introduced we were promised that they would only be used in areas where crashes frequently happen (black spots)... Guess what? They're used everywhere now.

Or the Jewish persecution by the Nazi's. They weren't suddenly killed one day because the German people decided they didn't like them, it was progressive steps by the government (that occurred over a number of years) that eventually led to the wide spread hatred and killing of Jews. There are numerous examples of governments, whether intentionally or just coincendetaly, who have put a system in place that has the potential to be abused and eventually was.

I understand people saying, well if your not a terrorist or breaking any laws than you have nothing to fear, which might be true but what if in the future the government has gradually increased the scope of the operation to deal with petty crime and who is to say what may or may not be illegal in the future e.g. what if in the future they make it illegal to insult the president, look up pornogrpahy, YouTube etc.

If you make subtle changes over a number of years and acclimatise people to the changes, than you can convince them of almost anything. Which is why you have to be very careful when allowing any system that has the potential to be abused by the government, maybe not now but 20 years from now.

nickyhansard
10th June, 2013 @ 11:49 pm PDT

What an awe inspiring waste of money. If somebody actually was a terrorist or had malevolent intent, they would have to be utter halfwits to convey messages or have conversations (not just over electronic media either -long range lenses and microphones make all communication monitorable) that could ever be construed as noteworthy. And as deranged as they may often be. they're seldom halfwits, not the ones we really have to fear anyway.

Nice try NSA, but honestly are all you people actually being paid for this?

The only thing alarming about it is that it's our taxes being so squandered.

And don't fear more and more sophisticated algorithms either. If it's communication between humans, it's really not that hard to make it utterly innocuous.

What really might be effective is if they ever worked out a way to read someones thoughts remotely , and that technology is millennia off in any case. By which time humans will long since have completely ruined this poor little planet..

Stuart.

Stuart Mather
11th June, 2013 @ 05:16 am PDT

'If one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear.'

If one intends to oppose the State, especially legally,

one has something to hide, and something to fear.

The State can use PRISM to connect the dots of

membership in anti-state groups, search their

computers, and if they do not find evidence of

wrongdoing, plant some. Either can then be used

as evidence in court, or as a basis for blackmail.

M. Report
16th June, 2013 @ 09:36 am PDT
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