For almost six years the American National Security Agency (NSA) has been having direct access to the servers of some of the leading U.S. Internet firms including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple, under a project called PRISM.
This is what has emerged recently from a document published by both the Washington Post and the Guardian, the latter also author of a report on NSA-Verizon phone record metadata collection. Both the newspapers have obtained a top secret Power Point presentation dated April 2013, which describes some of the practices used by the Agency to monitor computer communications. The 41 slides document, which was apparently used to train certain NSA’s employees, is about NSA and FBI “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” giving access to audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and passwords.
Facebook and Google, among others, released a similar statement, reacting sharply to media allegations and denying that the firms have been providing the US National Security Agency with user data. In a statement, Facebook said: “Protecting the privacy of our users and their data is a top priority for Facebook. We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers. 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”. Both the companies have concluded their statements with an invitation to governments to be more transparent with regard to their surveillance programs.
Also President Obama, who has lived one of the darkest weeks of his administration, during a press conference, has described the surveillance programs as a modest intrusion into citizen’s privacy, necessary to ensure safety. He has defended the NSA, reiterating that “nobody is listening to your phone calls” and that it was designed to help keep Americans safe. Regarding the PRISM program he has also remarked that it “does not apply to U.S. citizens and does not apply to people living in the United States.”
The PRISM program – strongly criticized especially by those who defend the Fourth Amendment, personal freedom and privacy and see in that program a sort of “big brother”- was enabled by changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), in details by the Protect American Act of 2007 (PAA) under President Bush and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), renewed by Congress under President Obama in 2012 for five years.
Basically, the PAA and the FAA authorize intelligence agencies to monitor phones, e-mails, and other communications to obtain targeted communications of any party who lives outside the U.S., even if the other end of the communication lies within the U.S., without having to request them from the service providers and without having to get individual court orders.
Even though the PRISM project and its surveillance activities reported in the Washington Post and the Guardian might seem to be lawful and conducted under authorities approved by the Congress, the case has provoked strong reactions mainly from the European Union who has been struggling for years to enforce EU citizen’s privacy in the USA.
Is it really the main point of the debate to focus on the relationship between power and safety and privacy and personal freedom, or would it rather be preferable to give more attention to the real essence of the surveillance programs and their lack of transparency?