PRISM: What’s behind this NSA surveillance tool lurking about your Facebook page?

The PRISM program has been sucking up what most people would think of as personal information on Google, Facebook, Skype, and other Internet providers. What’s up with the NSA's secret surveillance effort?

Allen Breed/AP
Reem Dahir takes a peek at fiancee Abraham Ismail's laptop as they chat at a Starbucks cafe in Raleigh, N.C. The young couple understands the need for surveillance to prevent terrorist attacks, but they worry the government went too far by secretly gathering phone data from millions of Americans.

PRISM. Its code name sounds like something out of a James Bond novel. Cold, hard-edged, geometric and geological, spelled all-caps but not an acronym – at least not one intelligence officials reveal publicly.

It’s the super-secret program to surreptitiously sweep the Internet for audio, video, photographs, emails and web searches from nine major US Internet providers – Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple – in hopes of detecting suspicious behavior that begins overseas and may be tied to terrorism.

“Super-secret,” that is, until this past week, when the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper pulled back the curtain on this massive surveillance effort spawned in the wake of the 911 terrorist attacks.

So what do we know now about PRISM? Here’s how the Washington Post reports its genesis:

“PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority,” the Post reported Thursday. “Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with US intelligence collection.”

Meanwhile, the story continues to unfold.

The Guardian on Saturday published another slide from the 41-slide National Security Agency (NSA) PowerPoint presentation which details PRISM and its operation. 

“The slide details different methods of data collection under the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 (which was renewed in December 2012),” the Guardian reports. “It clearly distinguishes PRISM, which involves data collection from servers, as distinct from four different programs involving data collection from ‘fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.’”

“Essentially, the slide suggests that the NSA also collects some information … from cable intercepts, but that process is distinct from PRISM,” according to this report. In other words, PRISM isn’t the only tool sucking up what most people would think of as personal information.

Ideally, PRISM was designed to help keep Americans safe. Does that mean the secret program’s exposure could have the opposite result?

In his remarks on the revelations Friday, President Obama echoed intelligence experts – both inside and outside the government – who predicted that potential attackers will find other, secretive ways to communicate now that they know that their phone and Internet records may be targeted.

An al-Qaida affiliated website on Saturday warned against using the Internet to discuss issues related to militant activities in three long articles on what it called "America's greatest and unprecedented scandal of spying on its own citizens and people in other countries,” reports the Associated Press.

"Caution: Oh brothers, it is a great danger revealing PRISM, the greatest American spying project," wrote one member. "A highly important caution for the Internet jihadis ... American intelligence gets information from Facebook and Google," wrote another.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the initial reporting on NSA surveillance of personal data.

CNET, the tech media website, headlines a long piece Friday “No evidence of NSA's 'direct access' to tech companies.” CNET quotes its own anonymous intelligence insiders, and it notes some backtracking on the original stories.

We haven’t heard the end of PRISM, which CNET chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh says is simply an unclassified data processing tool used for other intelligence purposes as well and standing for “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management.”

Not much James Bondian about that … or maybe there is.

As the Guardian reported Saturday, “A far fuller picture of the exact operation of PRISM, and the other surveillance operations brought to light, is expected to emerge in the coming weeks and months.”

One more mystery to be solved: Why was Twitter not included in the nine Internet providers listed above?

USA Today’s Scott Martin speculates on two explanations for Twitter's absence.

“Twitter has a history of noncompliance and fighting information requests against its users,” he writes.

"As we've said many times before, Twitter users own their Tweets,” Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser is quoted as saying. “They have a right to fight invalid government requests, and we stand with them in that fight.”

“Another explanation for Twitter's absence is that the bulk of its data – aside from direct messages – is publicly available in the form of tweets,” Martin writes. “That separates it from the likes of Yahoo and Google, which house years of personal emails and data on people.”

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