The code name is PRISM. It’s a top secret program that gives the National Security Agency direct access to the inner workings of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype and just about every other big data company on the web. It even has its own snazzy, SciFi looking logo and reports that are stamped TOP SECRET.
Sounds like something you’d find in a Ben Affleck movie but the UK paper The Guardian says it’s real and they have the proof; a 41-page PowerPoint presentation created to train operatives on the program.
I’m telling you, just looking at those documents online makes me nervous. The news broke several days ago and since then the parties involved have been in damage control mode.
Google was the first to respond with a post appropriately titled “What the …?”
First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.
Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.
The conspiracy theorist in me feels it necessary to point out that if Google did know about PRISM, they’d be required to disavow any knowledge of the program because that’s how these things work. A secret program isn’t much good if people don’t keep it a secret.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to call the claim “outrageous” in his post:
I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.
When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.
Google, Facebook and probably all of the other parties involved, have asked the US Government to be more transparent in their information requests. Google even went so far as to publicly publish its letter to the FBI asking for the okay to post data about NSA requests.
For these companies, privacy and security are the keys to staying in business. The public has to trust that their secrets are safe inside the digital walls. But it’s hard not to believe the documentation. The only thing that makes the PRISM slides unbelievable is that they’re so ridiculously cliche. If you wanted to create a secret internet spying project for a cartoon, this is what it would look like.
As I understand it, only a few slides from the deck have been released to the public. Why? Are the others so bad that it would jeopardize national security? Or maybe there’s a final slide that says, “this is how we’d like to collect data if Google and the others would let us.” Then there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?
At the end of all of this is again that question – how much of our privacy are we willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? If combing through my TV-heavy Twitter posts will help the FBI stop an attack, then I’m all for it.