Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Why I love PRISM (OpEd)

There is no secret to what the nation’s newest political and ethical scandal is. Taking its name from a small glass pyramid that refracts light into a rainbow, PRISM has adorned the marquees of every major news program for the last week. Being uncharacteristically removed from this political scandal I decided that enough time had passed where I could sit down and get a thorough idea of what PRISM is.

I was wrong.

Coverage of PRISM is an incredibly thick web of articles, and speculation, perhaps a microcosm of the program itself.

But as I read more and more about this controversy, I started to view it as a step forward. I realized, I love PRISM and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The Internet has seeped into everyday life the world is more connected now than it ever was before. I saw this increasing connectivity and I saw the fear of emerging technology gradually decline. For all intents this was a good thing, but as people became comfortable online, they became careless. In no longer fearing rising technology, being careful with your computer and sensitive with your data fell to the wayside. Now the NSA is forcing us to take a good hard look at what happens when we log on.

Where did this come from?

The National Security Agency was founded in 1952 under the National Security Council Intelligence Directive and toiled fervently, hidden from public view for most of the Cold War. Its primary focus was foreign intelligence gathering, using listening posts like Devils Mountain [1] to eavesdrop on foreign powers. Developing complex systems to monitor foreign traffic the NSA became very apt at utilizing emerging internet technologies to gather data on activities abroad. Yet it took one watershed event to completely change the direction of the NSA. After the Terror Attacks of September 11th 2001 the NSA turned its eyes and ears inward, and began a sweeping program of domestic spying know now as Stellar Wind. These warrantless data collection activities continued in secret until 2007 when the whistle was blown by William Binney. The complex patchwork of legislation and technology was laid in place, and the NSA continued to listen. PRISM exists now as one of the many offshoots of that phase in NSA history. [2]

What is Prism?

In 2006 a Technician working for AT&T named Mark Klein stumbled onto a secret room inside the Internet service providers switch center. Within the now famed room 641a laid complex equipment meant to monitor the traffic running through the companies new fiber optic cables. At the time there was dispute about what these rooms were for, if they really were collecting data, or simply being used by AT&T to better their own network.[3] We can see now that, in part, these power devices were used by the National Security Agency as a form of data collection. That (according to the leaked documents) is not PRISM.

PRISM has been described as “unfettered access” and “collection directly from the [major corporations] servers.”[4] This may also prove to be untrue. Major corporations like Apple, Google, and Facebook have come out denying their involvement in PRISM, stating that the Government does not have nearly the access that is implied in the news media’s reports.  Still we know that Tech Giants like Facebook and Google release information to the Federal Government under certain circumstances (like a court subpoena).[5]  We also know that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Acts created a court in which Law Enforcement bodies can request surveillance warrants, which would in turn require tech companies like Facebook, and Google to turn data to the federal government. That could be the closest idea of PRISM we can discern at the moment.

However the main problem with understanding the full extent of PRISM – and even what it is – comes the sources of information themselves. When Edward Snowden first contacted The Guardian he had forty one Powerpoint slides detailing classified Government activity. He was insistent on publishing all forty one slides, so much so that he also contacted The Washington Post and sent them the slides as well. Snowden wanted the truths of his Powerpoint released to the world, yet when the story broke both The Washington Post and The Guardian had revealed only five of the original forty one.[6] Five slides which were worded in a very tricky manner, and did not reveal much about PRISM at all. These five slides dealt in generalities, vaguely worded outline slides of the process. The only slide that sets to define PRISM has the phrase “Collection directly from the servers of these US service providers…” It seems arguably more likely that this means Companies merely send this information to the government from their servers as per requests from Law Enforcement bodies.[7][8][9] To understand this better we can use an example of your personal library. In your house there is a personal library of books, novels, manuals and even some of your own memoirs and diaries. The interpretation of PRISM currently enjoying the most coverage is one of a friend having a key to your library, being able to read anything he pleases, whenever he sees it fit to read. Yet PRISM might be the same as your friend asking you for books which you then mail to him. Your friend, in both scenarios is getting books directly from your library. So why are people up in arms if this relationship between service providers and the Government has been known to exist? That is the reason I love PRISM.

Prism has forced people to look at the way they exist online. For years those who are now angry at the Government for collecting their information, have been willingly giving it up. Advertisers and Analytics firms have – day in and day out – tracked the online habits of the American people. Companies like Facebook often sell data about users to marketing firms. Analytics companies track users online to websites they visit in order to develop targeted ads for products they might like. This happens every single day, and this is not a good thing. People now feel like their privacy has been invaded, their rights suspended yet it is common knowledge that what you put online is permanent, and forever tied to your online identity. This disparity has always haunted me. Those who told me to be careful what I put online are angry that things they put online are being accessed. It seems that people have a special connection to a computer. A computer exists inside your home, it is yours, you can access it when you please, and do with it what you want. A computer is private, tailored to your needs, but the Internet is not. This paradox has been illustrated greatly with PRISM.

Now is the time to better understand your data, to better understand how the Internet has come to exist in your daily life. The ethical questions of a government spying on its people are still there and are still to be debated. At a personal level I am not grabbing my pitchfork. I had seen the way tech giants treated their users, it was known that companies surrender their records per government request, anyone who’s watched a crime show knows that police very often request phone records. Now as the Internet finds its way into your pockets as well as your desk take the time to understand where your data is going.


The best way to understand the basics of how the internet works is to learn how to break it

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