TMCnet Feature
July 02, 2013

NSA Spying: The Lowdown on PRISM

By Jacqueline Lee, Contributing Writer

Depending on your perspective, Edward Snowden is either a hero or a traitor. The 29-year-old whistleblower, while employed as a contractor for Booz Allen, worked within the NSA at the Kunia Regional SIGINT Operations Center in Hawaii.

Snowden claims that he took the Booz Allen job for the specific purpose of discovering and leaking information about the NSA's worldwide surveillance activities. These included the PRISM program in the U.S. and the Tempora program with the British Government Communication Headquarters.

PRISM, which is an acronym for "Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization and Management," is a computer program developed by the NSA to collect and analyze all of the data that the NSA has requested from Internet companies. The key component that enables PRISM is the fact that much of the world's communication flows through American companies.

Within the NSA, if an analyst is confident that someone should be targeted for surveillance, the agent places a request with a supervisor, who reviews all search terms. When the supervisor verifies that the target is a foreign national currently located overseas, then the analyst can search the PRISM database for any information about the target's communications.

Analysts can search for both real-time information and for stored information. The list of companies tasked for PRISM includes Microsoft (News - Alert), Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Twitter reportedly refused to join the program.

PRISM receives some of the following information from these companies: e-mail, voice and video calls, IM, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers and social networking information. PRISM can also receive notices about locations of target activity, such as where a target logs into a computer network.

Slides obtained by The Wall Street Journal show that PRISM is the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports. As of April 5, slides show that PRISM contained information for 117,675 active surveillance targets.

The court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court forbids the NSA from using PRISM to spy on both American citizens and foreign nationals while they are on American soil. Also, the NSA doesn't have direct access to information from companies like Google (News - Alert). The agency has to request information that the companies can then provide.

Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group, has downgraded America's freedom rankings in terms of Internet usage. Anthony Romero of the ACLU has said, "A pox on all the three houses of government. On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values."

Edited by Alisen Downey
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