PRIVACY isn’t what it used to be. After UK’s Guardian broke the news this month that the premier US intelligence organ National Security Agency (NSA) had initiated the PRISM programme, a system “that collects emails, documents, photos and other material for agents to review” and one that had allegedly involved some of the biggest names on the internet including Google and Facebook. The denials coming from industry will do little to alleviate public fears that their information has been knowingly shared with NSA. Shortly after Guardian blew the top off the story, other leading houses like the New York Times and Washington Post have followed suit with NSA presentations. All this of course is extremely bad news industry giants who appear to be scampering to downplay the damage caused to their reputation.
The data leaked from NSA is seriously damaging to a number of major players who are service providers. One particular slide that states “Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.” What has come to light is that at least some tech companies actually helped design part of the PRISM system to tap into information found on company servers.
So what is so special about PRISM? It is a one-of-a-kind surveillance programme that allows for the host intelligence agency to tap into both “live” and “stored” communication. Stored communication, as in emails and messages in programmes that may range anything from social network programmes like “Facebook” to email programmes like “Outlook”; whereas “Live” constitutes tapping into programmes like “Skype” to eavesdrop into real-time talk between parties. The implications of such access cannot be understated under any circumstances. In a move to counter the growing storm brewing, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence has gone on record to state: “The United States government does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers of US electronic communication service providers. All such information is obtained with Fisa court approval and with the knowledge of the provider based upon a written directive from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence.”
Rights groups are up in arms against the denials coming out of industry. ‘Fight for the Future’ co-founder Holmes Wilson believes that privacy issues have been grossly violated by tech companies. He states that “These companies are denying that they give direct access to their servers, but what they have created is a complex legal and technological mechanism that amounts to the same thing. God knows what other government agencies have access to this information.” Questions are being raised as to the legality of the information gathering tool. ‘Electronic Frontier Foundation’ filed a suit under the Freedom of Information Act in August 2012, “seeking disclosure of the FISC ruling. Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall revealed the existence of the opinion, which found that collection activities under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) Section 702 “circumvented the spirit of the law” and violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. But, at the time, the Senators were not permitted to discuss the details publicly. Section 702 has taken on new importance this week, as it appears to form the basis for the extensive PRISM surveillance program reported recently in the Guardian and the Washington Post.” The move has been blocked by the government.
What the Guardian and Washington Post have done is to literally, blow the lid off PRISM that is technically supposed to deal with foreigners’ online communication, but which could easily be used to circumvent American citizens’ privacy, and there lies the problem. Whatever may be the outcome of the lawsuit, the fact remains that NSA’s domestic surveillance programme has created waves for both the general public and the industry at large. Beyond that, it is going to damage President Obama who had championed the cause of privacy during his 2007 campaign trail. Barack Obama had criticised the privacy invasion of the Bush administration for its surveillance programme stating that it put “forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” The fact remains that under section 702 of Fisa PRISM is legal and gives intelligence agencies greater access to service providers, whether these are internet based services or cellular with little prospect of judicial oversight. It remains to be seen whether a congressional hearing will ever take place being demanded by civil rights group or whether the whole issue of PRISM and other such programmes remain above scrutiny in the name of protecting national security.
The writer is Assistant Edotor, The Daily Star.
Source: The Daily Star