Deconstructing PRISM: The uses and extent of PRISM and its implications

01 Jul

0001324343452As Edward Snowden tries to escape the long reach of US justice, the full extent of the PRISM program and its intended purpose seems to have become lost in a barrage of US propaganda. The US government and their PR agencies are currently doing whatever it takes to persuade popular opinion that PRISM is for legitimate counterterrorism purposes, vital to US security. While the US government continues to pull no punches in both silencing and prosecuting Snowden, the full scope of the PRISM program has become lost. The very notion that PRISM is a counterterrorist program, and has no alternative, more ominous purpose is a well-constructed deception.

It’s only obvious that terrorist networks, or financial backers, use coded messages or encrypted files, and just like hackers are very skilled at covering their tracks by avoiding social networks, hiding their IP’s and avoid tracked search engines such as Google.  Quit clearly any terrorist network would remain undetectable to the PRISM program, and would be tracked instead by hacking personal computers and monitoring, specific forums frequented by these organizations.

However, the same theory would not be applied to individuals who act entirely independently of the foreign terrorist organization. Despite this, PRISM never managed to stop the recent Woolwich attack, the Boston Bombing’s, Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, or numerous other terrorist attacks both inside and outside America.

Wade Michael Page the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooter is believed to have been primarily radicalised through the internet and had significant presence on racist websites. On the other hand the Boston Bombers downloaded extremist Muslim literature including the summer 2010 issue of Inspire, which outlined how to make a pressure cooker bomb.

The most significant case, that might prove that the PRISM program could be affective in tracking terrorists, is the recent Burma Embassy Bomb Plot, which was foiled by Indonesian security officials through a Facebook page created by Sefa Riano the bomb maker. Nonetheless, despite the Boston Bombers, the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooter and the recent Burma Embassy Bomb Plot, providing evidence that the internet has become a medium for both plotting and radicalization, it still provides no evidence that PRISM is either useful, or affective in tracking terrorists. The reason for this is quite simple, PRISM is not a program to capture and track terrorists, but a program to profile terrorists.

Following the Burma Embassy Bomb Plot William McCants, a former U.S. State Department analyst, said “On Facebook and Twitter, you can really go after people who broadly share your ideology but haven’t really committed themselves to violence.” This same theory would also apply to the security services, going after people who share an ideology, “but haven’t committed themselves to violence.” This is basic criminal profiling, creating a profile of anyone who sympathises with terrorists, voiding the basic legal principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. For the program to have any success at stopping a terrorist attack, each individual suspect would have to be individually surveilled, which would be physically impossible, or a suspect would have to make significant acknowledgment of intent, or actually carry out a terrorist attack.

The Guardian describes PRISM as an “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information” with examples including email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social networking details. Snowden summarized that “in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT [signals intelligence] databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want”.

Taking into account that PRISM is only useful for creating criminal profiles, and subsequent databases of possible suspected terrorists, it illuminates any possible usefulness of the program preventing a terrorist attack. This does not necessarily mean that PRISM is not used for counterterrorism purposes, or even that it does not hold some usefulness, but only on a small scale that’s focused on known terrorist pages, followed up by indepth investigations.

So PRISM may not be affective at discovering the next terrorist attack, or finding the next individual who’s at risk of crossing the fresh hold between radicalism and terrorism, but it would be affective at tracking both internal and external political dissent, or finding dirt on political opposition. It’s common knowledge now that popular social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, have been under Surveillance by the FBI, while many other political groups have been infiltrated. For this reason it makes logical sense that groups, or individuals which are deemed as political opposition to the US state, have also had databases of their online activity compiled under the PRISM program. This not only creates an environment where possible internal security threats such as Edward Snowden can be targeted, but also any large scale social movements such as the Arab Spring, or the recent Turkish and Brazilian protests can be hastily subdued, by targeting possible ring leaders.

One interesting thing to point out is the US tenacious use of the ambiguous term terrorism. Ever since 9/11 the US has classified any opposition to both US foreign policy and the US establishment as a terrorist threat. Even a written exam by the Pentagon in 2009 labelled “protests” as a form of “low-level terrorism,” while Cuba despite being a victim of US based state terror, has remained on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism ever since the Cuban revolution.  For this very reason whenever the US uses the term terrorism it can refer to anything from Al Qaeda, to civil rights protesters.

Taking into account the ambiguous use of the term terrorism, US attempts to persuade public opinion that PRISM is purely for counterterrorism purposes, vital to US security and completely legal can only be viewed as Orwellian doublethink. To put this into clearer context you have to analyse other national web monitoring programs such “SORM” in Russia, or the “Great Firewall” in China, which have been vehemently criticized by the US. The SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities), is a Russian law passed in 1995, which allows the FSB to monitor internal telephone and internet communications, while The Great Firewall is a censorship and surveillance project started in 2003 by the Chinese government for online censorship. Unlike SORM and the Great Firewall, PRISM monitors and records not just internal communications, but external communications on a global level. Not only does this give valid justification for Both Russian and Chinese surveillance programs, as a means of monitoring their own networks against US surveillance, but it also proves that PRISM is far more ominous than just simple a counterterrorism surveillance program, as proclaimed by the US government. Deng Xiaoping famous saying in the early 1980’s, summarised the objectives of both SORM and the Great Firewall, in the new light of PRISM when he said “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”

In the US attempts to legitimize PRISM, and demonise Snowden, the US government has not only gone about highlighting the Russian and Chinese surveillance programs, which they have for so long criticised, but they have also attempted to make PRISM sound somewhat legitimate in comparison.       Obama said PRISM “applies very narrowly to leads we have obtained to issues relating to terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” while Dick Cheney even asserted that PRISM could have stopped 9/11. Voiding the blatant PR contrived statements and the basic illusion that this is a counterterrorist program, PRISM is extensive in comparison to its Russian and Chinese counterparts.

Somehow because PRISM supposedly does not carry out censorship, and is being conducted under the umbrella of counterterrorism, the ability to persuade much of the US public of its legitimacy is very simple, as it supposedly does not restrict freedom of speech and protects US security. However, this is far from the case and just plays into the Western construct, left over from the Cold War that Russian and China are totalitarian states abusing human rights and supressing independent thought. That’s not to say both states do not supress Civil and political rights, just in a different way to the US. However, what makes PRISM, vastly different to both Chinese and Russian programs is its global reach covering the entire world’s internet communication, which gives valid concern for all governments and every person on earth.

This Western construct, can also be looked upon in how cyber espionage is viewed, making US monitoring merely an international norm, while Chinese activities are illegal in international law. In an effort to make distinction to Chinese and US hacking, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said “China’s particular niche in cyber has been theft and intellectual property.” Dempsey went on to create this perception that Chinese activities are distinctly different and outright illegal “their view is that there are no rules of the road in cyber, there’s nothing, there’s no laws that they are breaking, there’s no standards of behavior.” The fact is Chinese hacking activities are more than likely stealing intellectual property and hacking private companies.  However, just because China is a centralized government and holds looser patent laws and wider control over Private Corporation, it still does make Chinese hacking illegitimate and US hacking legitimate. All this argument does is play into the capitalist mind-set, or more so the libertarian school of thought that planned economies and state intervention, is an attempt to restrict individual liberty. Contrary to Western thought, neither can there be a distinction between state and corporate espionage, but also their can be no distinction between how this data is used. The basic objective of espionage is to obtain government or individual information considered secret or confidential for strategic advantage, which is conducted by all states, whether its Industrial espionage or, military espionage is insignificant. However, PRISM a blanket surveillance system with global reach, goes far beyond conventional state on state espionage, and is not only breaching the worlds Civil and political rights, but also throws up major ethical questions and depending on the use of collected data, breaches the foundations of Westphalian sovereignty.

The US often likes to portray China cruel dictatorship supressing its population, normally the defence and domestic security budgets are used as evidence for state oppression and often highlighted when referring to web based censorship. However, comparing this on a per capita base this argument turns out to be another deceptive illusion.  The PLA 2013 budget is 740.6 billion yuan, while the domestic security budget is 769.1 billion yuan between $119-120 billion. On the other hand the 2013 US department of states budget is $672 billion, while the US homeland security budget is $54.9 billion. These figures are never precise and can rise by billions as many of the figures are kept of the books such as international conflicts and classified operations, especially in the US were much domestic security is conducted by private companies. The NSA budget for example is about $10 billion, but being its focus is both domestic and international security and its operations and budget are classified it’s impossible to give any accurate figure. With a population of over 1.3 billion the US per capita domestic security budget, is twice as large as China. As far as china’s defence budget goes, not only is the US defence budget seven times larger, but the Chinese budget is standard for their state size, security issues and growth.

The hypocrisy of the US government, which has been pointed to by the Russian and Chinese media, is unprecedented. Back in 2009 during a speech in Shanghai Obama criticizing Beijing over their web censorship said “In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?” And second, “Should we be able to use Twitter freely?”

“I am a big believer in technology and I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.”

“And so I’ve always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I’m a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet — or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”

After mentioning the role the Web can play in government and politics, Mr. Obama added:

“So I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter. The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together.”

Possible Uses for PRISM

One possible use for PRISM, is rather ominous, which is to manipulate online content in order to cause political dissent in other countries, but also to recruit dissidents, to help carry out subversive activities. The Guardian reported in 2011 of software being developed by the US government, which would allow them to manipulate internet conversations. The program described as an “online personal management service” would “allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.”  On the other hand the PRISM program not only allows NSA to pin point specific geographical web locations frequented with political dissent, but also to track individuals which would be categorized as highly susceptible to turning.

The most recent disclosure, by Snowden, that the US had “hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages,” seems to highlight this claim. To hack into an individual mobile phone would make sense, if America was carrying out conventional espionage. However, two points seem to highlight that this was aimed at targeting individuals who may be useful in causing political dissent in China.  Firstly even though mobile text messages are still monitored in China, people write more freely in text messages, due to “the Great Firewall,” and the extensive internet censorship. Secondly they hacked into the phone company, giving them access not to just an individual’s text messages, but all the millions of people who subscribe to that individual phone company, allowing them to compile a profile database on millions of Chinese citizens. Quite clearly not only is it an unconventional method of espionage, but any relevant information related to security, business, technology etc would be like finding a needle in a haystack. However, finding activists or individuals holding strong sentiment against the Chinese regime would be completely plausible.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty the full scale, and purpose of the PRISM program. Despite this we can still speculate on certain aspects of the PRISM and come to a consensus over what is state propaganda and what are the specific purposes. Taken into account PRISM’s global reach, its ineffectiveness for counterterrorism, US defence spending and the effectiveness of PRISM for criminal profiling, we can assert that the purpose of PRISM goes far beyond simple state espionage. Instead PRISM can be viewed as a serious violation of human rights on an international scale and a serious threat to global peace. One thing we should all ask ourselves is how large is our web trail, and how many personal details we leave behind. PRISM could easily find anything, from an anti-Guantanamo campaigner in Washington DC, to an anti-G8 anarchist in Ireland, or a disenchanted PLA officer in China. For this reason, when a foreign government claims political opposition is being manipulated by outside forces, from now on we have to ask ourselves, are these outside forces the NSA program now known as PRISM?


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