Secret to Prism program: It's just one part of an even bigger data seizure
Every company involved denied the most sensational assertion in the Prism documents: that the NSA pulled data "directly from the servers" of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and more.
Technology experts and a former government official say that phrasing, taken from a PowerPoint slide describing the program, was likely meant to differentiate Prism's neatly organized, company-provided data from the unstructured information snatched out of the Internet's major pipelines.
In slide made public by the newspapers, NSA analysts were encouraged to use data coming from both Prism and from the fiber-optic cables.
Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream. If eavesdroppers spot a suspicious email among the torrent of data pouring into the United States, analysts can use information from Internet companies to pinpoint the user.
With Prism, the government gets a user's entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property.
Once the NSA has an inbox, it can search its huge archives for information about everyone with whom the target communicated. All those people can be investigated, too.
That's one example of how emails belonging to Americans can become swept up in the hunt.
In that way, Prism helps justify specific, potentially personal searches. But it's the broader operation on the Internet fiber optics cables that actually captures the data, experts agree.
"I'm much more frightened and concerned about real-time monitoring on the Internet backbone," said Wolf Ruzicka, CEO of EastBanc Technologies, a Washington software company. "I cannot think of anything, outside of a face-to-face conversation, that they could not have access to."
One unanswered question, according to a former technology executive at one of the companies involved, is whether the government can use the data from Prism to work backward.
For example, not every company archives instant message conversations, chat room exchanges or videoconferences. But if Prism provided general details, known as metadata, about when a user began chatting, could the government "rewind" its copy of the global Internet stream, find the conversation and replay it in full?
That would take enormous computing, storage and code-breaking power. It's possible the NSA could use supercomputers to decrypt some transmissions, but it's unlikely it would have the ability to do that in volume. In other words, it would help to know what messages to zero in on.
Whether the government has that power and whether it uses Prism this way remains a closely guarded secret.
A few months after Obama took office in 2009, the surveillance debate reignited in Congress because the NSA had crossed the line. Eavesdroppers, it turned out, had been using their warrantless wiretap authority to intercept far more emails and phone calls of Americans than they were supposed to.
Obama, no longer opposed to the wiretapping, made unspecified changes to the process. The government said the problems were fixed.
"I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs," Obama explained recently. "My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards."
Years after decrying Bush for it, Obama said Americans did have to make tough choices in the name of safety.
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," the president said.
Obama's administration, echoing his predecessor's, credited the surveillance with disrupting several terrorist attacks. Leading figures from the Bush administration who endured criticism during Obama's candidacy have applauded the president for keeping the surveillance intact.
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