Last week’s shocking revelations about the NSA’s surveillance and data-gathering activities, known as Prism, which was exposed by the Guardian, has highlighted the vast extent that the US dominates and monitors cyberspace. Despite a few political pundits supporting the program, Prism has sparked widespread outcry over what has been viewed, as an infringement on civil liberties and a violation of both domestic and international law.
For many journalists and political activists alike, the revelations were nothing new, instead they provided the evidence needed to prove their theories correct. It’s only obvious that state security services would attempt to control what has become commonly known as the “Last Frontier of Free Speech.” For example China with “The Great Firewall” has been controlling and monitoring popular social networks such as Renren, Sina and Weibo for years. However, what’s different about Prism is how vast and elaborate the surveillance operation is, far exceeding what has been conducted by other governments.
Julian Assange said in an address to Sydney University that “Edward Snowden revealed something that I’ve been speaking about for a long time, providing clear concrete proof that the internet has penetrated every aspect of society, right along with it is mass surveillance.”
Despite the obvious legal aspects being in violation of both the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, along with countless other international regulations, the program monitors not just US citizens, but everyone despite their geographical location. A collusion between the NSA and the major internet companies, aimed at “target and track foreign targets,” the Prism program not only monitors the majority of cyberspace, but also tracks the majority of the world’s population through the most popular modes of cyber communication. For example Google and Yahoo dominate 90% of the search engine market, with only China’s Baidu, with 5% market share, coming anywhere close to Google and Yahoo’s cyberspace monopoly. One has to wonder, whether China new something we didn’t, when blocking Google, Youtube, Facebook and Yahoo four of the major corporation cooperating with the Prism program.
Even more worrying is the collection of metadata, which is supposedly used to connect known terrorists to people in the US and to assist military forces overseas. Exposed in another Guardian exposé, Verizon was ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to supply records of all telephony metadata “on an ongoing daily basis.” The Obama administration played down the significance of Metadata, with White House Spokesman Josh Earnest saying “The information acquired does not include the content of any communications.” The lack legal clarity, due mainly to ambiguity of the term metadata, insures metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment unlike content of emails, or instant messages. This lack of clarity has not only allowed for a legal loophole in surveillance, but has also led to many journalists not connecting the dots between metadata and the Prism program.
Metadata summarizes the basic information about data, which can be anything from the basic structure and design of a website, to the actual data content. The fact is, the Prism program which “allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats,” would also include the metadata. If anything the Verizon court case shows not that the US government does not have the ability to access metadata, but more so that Verizon never gave the US authorization to mine their metadata. In reality Prism works in parallel with another program code-named BLANEY which is used specifically to collect metadata — address packets, device signatures and the like — as it streams past choke points along the backbone of the Internet. BLARNEY’s is describes itself as “an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.” This system not only allows the NSA to control the control the flow of all information transmitted via fiber-optic cables, but in synchronization with Prism allows the US government to dominate the control over cyberspace.
So taking into account that Prism, in synchronization with other programs, with the direct authorization of major corporations which have a monopoly in cyberspace, can now control, monitor and store personal information, what are they using this data for? Despite the US government proclaiming the usual argument that the Prism program is needed for counterterrorism operations, the argument frequently used to defend all US surveillance operations, this does not seem probable. That’s not to say that Prism is not used for counterterrorism purposes, but more so that counterterrorism is not the only purpose for the Prism program. I say this because unless a person is known to the intelligent services, it would probably not be very useful for counterterrorism operations. However, what the program would be useful for is data mapping, creating a criminal profile of would-be terrorists, in the same way it would be useful in creating a profile of would-be leaker’s, hackers, or political dissidents. Watch out “Big Brother is watching you.”