Unless you’ve been hiding in the woods since the beginning of June, the words PRISM and XKeystore and the name Edward Snowden should be familiar to you. But there is no harm in refreshing your memory a little:
Edward Snowden was an employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Security Agency (NSA), the central producer and manager of signals intelligence for the United States. During his employment at the NSA, Snowden gained access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets. On May 20, he arrived in Hong Kong with four laptops with classified documents and on June 1, he was interviewed by two Guardian journalists.
On June 5 The Guardian breaked its first exclusive story based on the documents Snowden gained access to, revealing a secret court order showing that the US government had forced the telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans. The next day, a second story revealed the existence of the previously undisclosed programme PRISM, which internal NSA documents claim gives the agency “direct access” to data held by Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.
The tech companies naturally deny that they have set up “back door access” to their systems for the US government. Admitting such a thing could potentially be commercial suicide for the companies. But, for all intents and purposes, we can assume that these back doors exists. Why? First off all; it’s every intelligence agency, security agency and nervous government’s wet dream: To know just about everything about everyone. And considering how much we use the internet today, it’s a fantastic source of information. Secondly; it’s not that much of a technical challenge to get the kind of back door access PRISM is supposed to have. Install a man-in-the-middle at the right location, and you can listen in on pretty much everything. And last, but not least, all the companies can easily be persuaded to comply: Install the back doors or you’re not allowed to operate. This has happened before and one example is BlackBerry: The company was not allowed to operate in India for some time because the Indian government was unable to intercept BlackBerry’s secure corporate mail and messaging services.
But why should you care about PRISM, the NSA and that your own and foreign governments are listening in on everything you say and reading everything you write? The average citizen, and it’s a pretty good chance you are an average citizen, isn’t doing or planning to do anything illegal. So does it really matter that they know everything about you and every move you make?
Yes. Yes, it does. It actually matters a great deal and here’s why.
In its heydays, Stasi, the official state security service of the former DDR (GDR), intercepted 90 000 letters each day. Every single letter was opened, copied and archived before it was forwarded to the recipient, without his or her knowledge. The reasoning behind this massive information gathering was that everything was of interest. Most likely, Stasi did not need the information about the letter’s sender and recipient at the time it was intercepted, but if one or both of them ever were to be interrogated, the wast amount of personal information would make it easier for the state security officers to scare, manipulate and intimidate whoever they were interrogating.
We’re seeing the same now with the NSA: Everything is of interest – collect it all. With PRISM and XKeyscore, the NSA can intercept, store and intelligently search through almost everything you do on the internet: E-mails, chat-logs, browser history and Skype-calls. Stasi might have known a lot about the citizens of East Germany, but it’s nothing compared to the amount of data the NSA is collecting about the world’s internet users.
Like most of you, I’m now on the NSA’s radar, whether I like it or not. I’m not a criminal, nor am I a terrorist, but the NSA still feels that it’s necessary to watch my every digital move. I’m not on Facebook, but I’m a very heavy Google user: E-mail on Gmail, maps and navigation with Google Maps and location services on my mobile phone (a phone that uses Google’s Android operating system), contacts and calendar stored on my Google account, cloud storage using Google Drive and I do all of my browsing with the Chrome web browser, which is developed by Google. Through my use of all these services, it’s safe to assume that the NSA has the potential to keep a very close eye on who am I, what I do and where I am.
It’s so massive, I’m not sure if most people understand the implications of a system like PRISM. A user at reddit described it much better than I could ever hope to do myself:
What you end up with is a system that will track everything you are doing. It sounds like tin foil hat stuff, but it’s being built right now and the eventual conclusion is an artificial intelligence system that will watch you 24hrs a day. It will keep an eye on you, and record everything you’ve done.
At first a system like this will be used for it’s original design purposes, catching bad guys trying to blow shit up. Then the system will have to be opened up for other purposes, drug trafficking, murders, child pornography, etc. Now the system will be fully operational, and hopefully doing a great job at keeping everyone safe.
It wont be perfect, but this is the future. The unknown is how will people react to being monitored 24hrs a day, knowing every call they make is being stored somewhere, every email they’ve written has been processed.
Overall, nobody really cares or people don’t really understand. Either way, the system will move forward, for better or for worst. I guess we are going to find out. I truly hope it’s for the better and someone doesn’t come into power and ask the following….
I need a list of all the Jews.
The above quote describes the situation and the dangers of a system like PRISM perfectly. But I don’t agree with everything – we shouldn’t just accept that this is happening. It’s time to start looking for alternatives to Google, Facebook and other big, American corporations that are also most likely part of PRISM – voluntarily or otherwise.
It will be challenging and we most likely have to let go of some of the conveniences the services we use online give us – but the sooner we start doing this, the better.
- The Guardian: Edward Snowden and the NSA files – timeline.
- Wikipedia: PRISM (surveillance program).
- Wikipedia: XKeyscore.
- Reddit: “No one will be able to stop what has been started”; comment by luvcatsandstuff.
- NRK.no (in Norwegian): Hvorfor USAs overvåkning burde bekymre oss.
- The Economic Times: BlackBerry maker Research in Motion agrees to hand over its encryption keys to India.