PRISM oversteps boundaries, posing dark future for Americans

By Tiemoko Ballo / Columnist

This summer the world found out about the Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization and Management, or PRISM. This contrived acronym is the once-secret codename for an ominous and pervasive surveillance and data-mining program run by the National Security Agency.

PRISM allows the NSA and the FBI to directly access the central servers of nine major U.S. internet firms — including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple — in order to constantly monitor audio, video, photos, emails, documents and connection logs.

The program began in 2007, following passage of the Bush administration’s USA Patriot America Act, but it remained top secret until NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information to The Guardian in June 2013.

PRISM’s existence means that our government has the potential to constantly monitor each of us and that the world’s largest tech companies — whose services we depend on — are actively feeding government agencies any and all customer information. 

Even the most conservative interpretation of the Fourth Amendment would prove PRISM unconstitutional. 

Snowden’s leak justifies many government conspiracy theories and validates reasons for anti-establishment paranoia. Yet, despite the amount of national coverage the PRISM story received and the sheer scale of what PRISM does, life seems to have gone on largely unchanged. Most people don’t even seem bothered by the threat of constant surveillance. So the question arises: How worried should you really be? The answer is very — you should be terrified.

Proponents of PRISM have attempted to keep hysteria in check by outlining the program’s supposed limitations. The day after PRISM’s existence became public, President Barack Obama defended the program by saying that it “does not apply to U.S. citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States.” This claim was later defended by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. 

Unfortunately the distinction between citizen and foreigner is not as cut-and-dry as it sounds. According to Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, analysts “key in ‘selectors,’ or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51-percent confidence in a target’s ‘foreignness.’”  Once data is collected, it is then evaluated to determine if the data’s author is indeed “foreign.” These targets are branded without even a convincing degree of confidence. “That is not a very stringent test,” noted Gellman.

This creates two serious problems. First, false positives will occur. Many U.S. citizens will be mistakenly identified as foreigners and tracked by PRISM — the 51 percent threshold is not rigorous. Secondly, this creates an opportunity for the  “plain view doctrine.” Established in Horton v. California, plain view essentially indicates that if law enforcement conducts a lawful investigation and inadvertently discovers evidence of a separate crime in plain view, that evidence is incriminating and usable in court. This could mean that if reason to persecute a U.S. citizen appears while monitoring a foreign suspect, the citizen could be incriminated. PRISM’s supposedly foreign-only scope doesn’t hold up because the program could still easily apply to U.S. citizens. Moreover, many questions about what data and how much of it PRISM collects remain unanswered. 

But why should you care if you “have nothing to hide?” The problem with innocent people assuming surveillance won’t affect them is one of misdirection. It’s a red herring that places focus on an individual’s actions instead of a widespread societal problem: loss of privacy and data ownership. Yes, most of us don’t have anything to hide and will never do or say anything that will even remotely interest the government. But, that doesn’t mean our lives should be open books. 

Under PRISM, massive amounts of information you expect to be private — let’s say your purchase history — is put under scrutiny if there’s “probable cause.” That kind of analysis can create staggering and disturbing conclusions. A private company can already determine if a woman is pregnant based on purchase history alone. What could someone put together with recordings of your Skype calls and all your Facebook data?

Even if big data analysis never reveals anything noteworthy about you, you’d never know one way or the other. There is no mechanism for citizens to find out what data has been accessed or collected  because PRISM operates in secrecy and without transparency. This is where conspiracy theories start to sound probable. It’s hard to imagine that virtually unchecked secret surveillance will never be abused.

So if you’re still nonchalant about PRISM, ask yourself this: What would it take to shake you out of your indifferent stupor? Is a series of serious abuses necessary for you to decide that the United States has traded away too much civil liberty? How do you know those abuses aren’t already occurring? 

These are difficult questions to answer because PRISM creates a horrendous inequity of information: You know nothing about what the government is doing, and it knows everything about what you’re doing. This PRISM isn’t transparent — it captures light and keeps you in the dark.

Write Tiemoko at [email protected].