The PRISM Details Matter (Also, Words Mean Something)
On “directly,” “unilaterally,” and the difference between a bombshell and a yawn of a story
Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill’s account of the NSA’s “PRISM” program in the Guardian is woefully short on technical details of how the program works. This lack of clarity should be troublesome to those attempting to decide whether they should be outraged. Does this program allow the government to look at private communications on a company’s central servers without a valid court order, or is it something more benign?
There shouldn’t have to be this lack of clarity. Greenwald and MacAskill’s followup article identifying Edward Snowden as the leaker specifically mentions his affinity for technical details:
A master on computers, he seemed happiest when talking about the technical side of surveillance, at a level of detail comprehensible probably only to fellow communication specialists.
Yet in both articles, the authors neglected to share these technical details. The closest we get to a description of what the authors think is going on is this, from the original article:
When the FAA was first enacted, defenders of the statute argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the Prism program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.
The Washington Post similarly claimed that agencies were “tapping directly into the central servers.” Additionally, the Post claimed:
From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes […]
Words have meaning, and the ones chosen here paint a grave picture. If the NSA has direct and unilateral access to anything it likes on the company’s servers, then this story is a bombshell, it deserves all the attention it is getting, and the vehement denials of direct access that the implicated companies have made are falsehoods. If these claims are true, people should be furiously angry both with the US government and with the implicated companies.
See also: Epic Botch of the PRISM Story.