Privacy Disappears in a 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. "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.