PRISM is Just the Tip of the Surveillance Iceberg

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 15 2013 3:36 PM

Worried About PRISM? It’s Just the Tip of the Surveillance Iceberg

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Protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programs

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The revelations of the highly classified National Security Agency program that takes records from Internet companies has received lots of attention recently. But it’s really a small part of “a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort,” notes the Associated Press. Those concerned that the U.S. government may be reading their emails should be more worried about a parallel NSA program that takes data straight from “the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet’s backbone.” But the existence of that program has been known for years.

Focusing on PRISM really does sound like missing the forest for the trees, as the AP’s Stephen Braun, Anne Flaherty, Jack Gillum and Matt Apuzzo explain in an extensive report:

Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream. If eavesdroppers spot a suspicious email among the torrent of data pouring into the United States, analysts can use information from Internet companies to pinpoint the user.
With Prism, the government gets a user's entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property.
In that way, Prism helps justify specific, potentially personal searches. But it's the broader operation on the Internet fiber optics cables that actually captures the data, experts agree.
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Facebook and Microsoft got permission from the government to reveal for the first time that they received requests for information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but the companies were not allowed to reveal any specific information. In the second half of 2012, Facebook received as many as 10,000 requests from local, state and federal agencies, affecting as many as 19,000 accounts. Microsoft received somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 requests, affecting as many as 32,000 accounts, reports the Washington Post.

Even though that is more information they’ve revealed in the past, it’s still impossible to know the scale of the requests because only some were related to terrorism investigations. Requests could have also come in searching for other routine law enforcement issues such as searching for missing people or fugitives. In fact, a person familiar with Facebook’s number tells Reuters that most of the requests are routine inquiries by police. Facebook, Google and Microsoft have publicly requested for permission to share more information about the requests for information after initial reports on PRISM suggested the companies had given the government a way to directly tap into their servers.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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