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Privacy Disappears in the Prism


This past Thursday (June 6), The Guardian (the British newspaper) and the Washington Post simultaneously reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting staggering amounts of user data and files from seven of the world's most powerful technology companies.

An information collection program called Prism has been routinely tapping the servers of these companies and collecting emails, articles, on-line searches, chat logs, photos and videos. There are no subpeonas, court orders or even clearly-defined investigations supporting this program. Traditionally, the government must establish that what they're seizing is relevant to an investigation. With Prism, they seize everything, review it and then decide its relevance. It's an information vacuum cleaner.

It's also a key tool of the Obama Administration. Data gathered through Prism now accounts for almost one in seven intelligence reports, the NSA said in a statement.

"Microsoft – which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan 'Your privacy is our priority' – was the first (company in the program), with collection beginning in December 2007," the Guardian reported [1]. "It was followed by Yahoo in 2008; Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009; YouTube in 2010; Skype and AOL in 2011; and finally Apple, which joined the program in 2012. The program is continuing to expand, with other providers due to come online."

Because these are the companies whose services comprise Internet life for most of us, the program signals the effective end of privacy as a right. If you use Google or Yahoo or Iphone or Skype, at least some of what you do, write, search, say in chat or put in your a video or photo on any of those services is being collected.

The story's centerpiece is a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation, apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program and leaked to the two newspapers. It is classified as "top secret with no distribution to foreign allies". The document also implies that the program has the consent of the companies, although most of them immediately denied that.

"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data," the company said. "We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data."

As one who has repeatedly accused Google of having that "back door", I declare myself acutely skeptical. Google is one of the world's most sophisticated Internet firms and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, is the Obama Administration's key advisors on technology. To say that the government could remove data for four years without the company catching on while risking its cozy relationship with Google holds less water than a bottom-less bottle.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the story is that the government quickly admitted [2] it's true … almost. In one of those non-admission admissions Washington is famous for, Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper said Prism was "designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-US persons located outside the United States. It cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States." He also pointed out that Prism doesn't really collect everything; it takes data that matches search terms.

That is ludicrous. The Internet has no national boundaries and the idea of "intentional targeting" is a cynical joke. The power and value of the Internet is that it's world-wide and people routinely communicate with others all over the world. Even those who don't get email from someone in another country certainly visit websites that are beyond U.S. borders or view material from other countries. In order to determine whether you have communicated in some way with "a target", they seize and review all your data and a large library of search terms (which is undoubtedly what they are using) doesn't screen out data. It merely organizes it.

The casualness with which Klapper made his admission is understandable. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, recently reauthorised by Congress, allows government agencies to use this investigative approach and the Obama administration believes what it's doing is completely legal and morally defensible. "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect," Klapper insisted, "and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."

But what threat can be greater than losing your privacy? Privacy is, as we've written here before, a right that allows us to communicate with, work with and act with people without government surveillance. It's what allows us to organize and analyze as a movement without government interference and disruption. It's key to our ability to oppose government policies and mobilize against them: a cornerstone of a democracy. Privacy, we now learn, no longer exists in this country. That's not the picture of a democracy; it's a snapshot of a police state. When one considers [3] the intense national campaign organized and run by the federal government to spy on, infiltrate, harass and ultimately to crush the Occupy Movement — a totally peaceful and constitutionally protected protest movement, in this light, there is no way Prism can be viewed as benign, much less legal or moral.

To make things even more frightening, it's the military that is doing the gathering. "It's shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this," Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's Center for Democracy, said. "The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications. This is unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure. That's profoundly troubling to anyone who is concerned about that separation."

Anyone who is not concerned is nuts! This is the same military that has become a mass murder machine: fighting illegal wars, murdering civilians world-wide and, the symbol of this moral bankruptcy, using drones that kill people indiscriminately with "signature strikes [4]". If they can do that with lives, imagine what they're willing to do with email.

What do you call a country where the military gathers massive information on its citizens?

In an example of "things getting worse quickly", the stunning Prism revelations actually eclipsed a story released Wednesday about the NSA collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans. That dance of intrusion was brought to light after the Guardian (having a great "scoop" week) published a secret government order that Verizon hand over its records: all of them, for a three-month period that is currently running.

What was amazing about that story is that Congressional leaders from both Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle reacted with a shrug. It's no big thing, they said, we've been authorizing that for years.

So they seize all Verizon phone records and most of our data from the Internet. That's the end of privacy as we've known it.

There are alternatives to these big companies and activists should certainly explore using them. But progressive movements have also been reluctant to take this privacy issue on as a priority. It's not clear what we've been waiting for but it's clear we can wait no longer. We need to take back what we've lost, before it becomes impossible to do so.

Alfredo Lopez is a founder and Leadership Committee Co-Chair of May First/People Link [5] and the technology columnist at This Can't Be Happening. 

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