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PRISM: A Primer on Secret Internet Eavesdropping Program

By    |   Friday, 07 June 2013 11:40 AM

Since 2007, the National Security Agency and FBI have been mining user information from virtually every major Internet hub, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, in a top-secret program called PRISM, the Washington Post reported Thursday, citing a confidential source.

The program is so powerful, the Post leaker claims, that the government "quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type."

News about PRISM has sparked a heated debate and has Americans everywhere outraged over the violation of their privacy.

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Here's everything you need to know about PRISM:

What is PRISM?

PRISM is a government program created in 2007 but just revealed Thursday that essentially serves as a blanket wiretap for the Internet. It allows the recording of "audio, video, photographs, chats, emails, documents, and connection logs" from virtually every major tech company, including "Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple" in order to "track foreign targets."

PRISM allows the NSA and FBI direct access to the Internet companies' servers, where the agencies can then pull whatever information they want.

So the government is reading all my email and monitoring all my online activity?

The NSA claims that PRISM is meant to target foreign enemies, not innocent Americans.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper defended the NSA Thursday and maintained that PRISM can't be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the U.S. He said a special court, Congress, and the executive branch all oversee the program and that extensive procedures make sure the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of data collected about Americans is kept to a minimum.

"Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," Clapper said.

Is it legal?

The short answer is yes.

The Protect America Act of 2007 made it possible for targets to be electronically surveilled without a warrant if they were "reasonably believed" to be foreign. That, coupled with the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Amendments Act, which immunized companies from legal harm for handing information over to the government, makes PRISM legal.

Did the Internet companies involved in PRISM know what was going on?

It's not clear, according to the Post. Several companies contacted by the newspaper denied any knowledge of the program and claimed they never allowed direct governmental access to their servers.

"We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers," Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook, said in a statement. "When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law."

"We have never heard of PRISM," said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple. "We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."

But others admitted to handing over customer information, but claim they only do so when presented with a court order or specific requests.

"Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data," a company spokesman 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."

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Microsoft also provided a statement: "We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

Related stories:

NY Times: Obama Administration 'Has Lost All Credibility'

Rep. Collins: Seizure of Phone Records 'Digs At Civil Liberties'

Internet Tapping Aimed at Non-U.S. People outside U.S.: Official

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Since 2007, the National Security Agency and FBI have been mining user information from virtually every major Internet hub, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, in a top-secret program called PRISM
Friday, 07 June 2013 11:40 AM
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