PRISM: The US Government, Private User Data and Tech Companies

The government wants wants the private data of US citizens — absolutely all of it.

Just a day ago, we learned that the NSA is collecting our phone records from Verizon, including “session identifying information”. This includes the originating and terminating number, duration of each call and a lot more specific metadata. It appeared, however, that the NSA was stopping short of gathering the actual content of our communications.

Unfortunately, today we learn via the Guardian about a program called PRISM, in which, since 2007, the NSA has gathered private user information from the technology and internet services we use every day: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, YouTube, AOL, Skype and Paltalk. According to the Guardian, “The top-secret NSA briefing presentation set out details of the PRISM program, which it said granted access to records such as emails, chat conversations, voice calls, documents and more.” In other words, the US government has been collecting virtually all of the digital data created by US citizens.

In the past, if a US citizen read the job description of a CIA Intelligence Collection Analyst, the natural reaction would be that our government is hiring very smart, analytical, thoroughly vetted people to collect information about suspected terrorists, criminals and other nefarious individuals who pose a national security threat. One would have thought these analysts are largely focusing their efforts on foreign individuals and organizations. Today, it is reasonable for a US citizen to have serious concerns around whose data is being collected and what that data is being used for.

Furthermore, it is reasonable for US citizens to demand answers from the 9 companies mentioned in the NSA’s presentation. They are all currently denying involvement in allowing the NSA to access their users’ data. This is hard to believe, since the 9 companies mentioned are among the most technologically sophisticated organizations on Earth. I have a difficult time believing that the NSA directly accessed their servers without their knowledge. Did they willingly grant access to their users’ information? If yes, why did they do so and how much did the NSA disclose to them about what data would be gathered and how it would be used? If no, how did they not notice that the US government was accessing their users’ information and challenge the legality of this action?

Today’s news is hugely disconcerting for US citizens. The US government is essentially saying that they presume their citizens are not trustworthy. They need to review all of our data before they will trust us. The technology services and companies who facilitate the creation of that data are either complicit in sharing our information with the government or grossly negligent in not protecting their users’ information.

Today is a sad day for the US government, US citizens and many of the most important companies in the technology and communication industries.

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