PRISM: Don't Worry, We Only Track Your Email Address, Not Keywords


US Govt

Lawyers representing the government's intelligence services claim that PRISM, the mass surveillance program that mines data from major Internet communication companies, does not snoop on people based on "keywords like terrorism" and instead targets certain email addresses and phone numbers. Isn't that heartening?

Agence-France Presse (AFP) writes that "they told the hearing hosted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board…that the NSA did not aim to scoop up all web transmissions, but that the surveillance was narrowly tailored to track or uncover terror suspects and other threats."

"We figure out what we want and we get that specifically, that's why it's targeted collection rather than bulk collection," a representative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said about the program, "which focuses on foreign suspects outside the United States."

"Any time there is not foreign intelligence value to collection, by definition it will be purged," the National Security Agency's Rajesh De stated.

Unsurprisingly, another NSA representative "insisted that the American government and the NSA had acted within the law at all times," according to The Register.

The claims are suspect, given the proclivity of NSA officials to sometimes offer the "least untruthful" answer when questioned. And even if PRISM does not itself pay attention to keywords, that does not mean that one of the U.S. government's 21 other known mass surveillance projects, systems, and initiatives is not providing PRISM with deeper information on its targets. The NSA does, after all, employ "parallel construction," a tactic which Reuters decribed last year: "federal agents are trained to 'recreate' the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated."

The Guardian reported an apparent bombshell—that "testimony by Rajesh De contradicted denials by technology companies about their knowledge of NSA data collection"—but the paper has retracted that claim.

Edward Snowden spoke through a telepresence robot at a conference on Tuesday, assuring that "there are absolutely more revelations to come." Whether we're moving closer toward a sci-fi utopia or dystopia, I can't tell, but the fact that a robo-Snowden has already been unleashed seems like a good sign.