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PRISM Surveillance on Americans–What Price Convenience?

By Piper Bayard

Sure, I could be writing about my debut dystopian thriller, FIRELANDS, which was released last week by Stonehouse Ink. In fact, I planned to do that very thing. And while I certainly hope you’ll decide to check it out, there is something even more important happening that we need to discuss.

Last week, former National Security Agency (“NSA”) intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward and released training slides used to train operatives at the NSA in a surveillance program called PRISM. PRISM allows the NSA to collect data directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple and search for any information on anyone at all. It was begun under a previous administration for the purpose of collecting information on foreign terrorists. It was greatly expanded by President Obama to include data collection on all Americans. These are two of the slides.

PRISM - Providers & Dates when collection began

PRISM Collection details

Some of these companies cooperated without protest. Others required warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”). However, FISA does not grant authority to collect data on Americans or others within US borders, something which PRISM does. All of these companies are denying knowledge and participation at this point.

Not only does the NSA directly access these companies’ servers, which serve primarily Americans, they are sharing PRISM’s power of unbridled access into our internet usage with the UK government. That’s right. The GCHQ – that’s the UK’s NSA equivalent – has the same access to all of our information that our own Obama administration is enjoying.

As for President Obama, he and his administration are, of course, downplaying the whole PRISM-gate and denying that PRISM was ever used to collect data on Americans or on people living in the US. At the same time, he says this is a “modest encroachment” on privacy that is a worthy trade off for preventing terrorism. (Attorneys will recognize this as “arguing in the alternative.”) Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union disagree with the inconsequential nature of these violations and are considering the legal options on behalf of the American people and others living within US borders.

As a recovering attorney, I could give you my take on the constitutionality and legal implications of this surveillance program. As a senior intelligence operative, Holmes could certainly enlighten us were he at liberty to do so. However, former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden says it best in his own words. Please take a few minutes to listen to this interview with him about PRISM, why he gave up the good life he led in Hawaii—he can never go home again—and what he hopes to accomplish with his revelations.

Programs like PRISM are extremely powerful and can reach into anyone’s email, internet records, and phone records. I am not suggesting that America should not track terrorists, but I see no sign from the Obama administration that any safeguards whatsoever are in place. Instead, the president suggests that we should take it all on good faith that his administration is not targeting Americans. Strong echoes of Richard Nixon’s infamous, “Trust me.”

In all of the stir this has created, we haven’t yet heard the deeper questions. Corporations sponsor and “own” politicians, so who in corporate America gets to benefit from this data collection? Do corporations who buy political figures get to use this technology to spy on their competitors? Do the IRS and other agencies get to use this information collected on us in the name of safety for their own purposes? After all, it’s much easier to target political opponents with such things as IRS scrutiny when their entire communication history is available for review.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, the most important point to remember is this:  the American government doesn’t do anything that the American people don’t let it get away with—yet. Where will we draw our line?

Related Links:

1)    Here’s the Law the Obama Administration is Using as Legal Justification for Broad Surveillance. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

2)    Obama: No One is Listening to Your Calls. Michael Pearson, CNN Politics, June 9, 2013.

3)    Obama Blasts Media ‘Hype’ Over Secret Program, Calling Them ‘Modest Encroachments on Privacy’. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

4)    Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations. Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Lora Poitras, The Guardian, June 9, 2013.

5)    NSA PRISM Program Taps in to User Data of Apple, Google, and others. Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, June 6, 2013.

6)    U.S., British Intelligence Mining Data from Nine U.S. Internet Companies in Broad Secret Program. Barton Gellman and Lora Poitras, The Washington Post, June 7, 2013.

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23 thoughts on “ PRISM Surveillance on Americans–What Price Convenience?

  1. on ,
    Cindy Teaches Math said:


    What disgusts me more than this administration’s routine refusal to obey the US constitution is the fact that so few voters seem to even care. I suppose that the fact that so many of our public school systems avoid teaching anything about our constitution or civil rights is a huge help to politicians that don’t wish to follow our laws. I wonder what percentage of teachers in the US have even read the Bill of Rights. Apparently many Americans dislike freedom. That explains Obama’s popularity. His supporters will undoubtedly explain this (like every other crime that Obama commits) by blaming it on Bush.

    The ardent Bush supporters will tell me that Obama invented corruption. Knee-jerk Dems and Reps will all be too busy worshiping on their knees at their respective altars to bother to stand up for their rights.

    Nietzsche was wrong. God is not dead. He’s simply been supplanted by the cheap plastic political icons that are foisted upon us by modern corporate political marketing scams.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post Piper. Even if this latest scandal is “mere hype,” I can’t help but “connect the dots” with all the other scandals–that seem to be erupting daily. In doing so, it paints an ugly picture of widespread corruption and abuse of power on a multitude of levels. My favorite commentator, Mark Steyn warned in his recent article, The All-Seeing State: “When the state has the capability to know everything except the difference between right and wrong, it won’t end well.”

    • An excellent and most applicable quote.

      Personally, I see the willingness of some people to excuse and/or ignore this Orwellian violation as an extension of the school policies that boot out a kindergartener who bites his pop tart into the shape of a gun. The public is no longer concerned with right and wrong, stupid and smart, innocent and guilty–the discernments necessary for a free society to function. Freedom is the ultimate responsibility, and a large portion of the public appears to no longer want that burden.

  3. I really am shocked at what I’ve read, Especially in the links at the end. So even as I sit here in Australia and do a Google search, or comment on an American friend’s Facebook post, The NSA and GCHQ store a copy? Good article.

    • You are correct. Hello NSA. *waves* Are you starting to understand why we Americans are so reluctant to trust our government to be the only ones with the firearms? Nowadays, such violations are done with complete impunity. In a proper democracy or republic, the government answers to the people. The balance is tipping, and more and more, the people must answer to the government. Those in power no longer depend on the people who elect them for their power, so they need not respect the people at all.

  4. I have an actual question because I’ve listened to commentary from various sources about this situation, and I’m just confused by the different takes. Is the government collecting anything more than what merchants like Amazon or Google or whomever are collecting as I stroll around the web? I feel like companies have access to an unprecedented amount of information on what information we access, so how is that different from the NSA collecting mass data on phone calls?

    I’m bothered by the situation, but I want to make sure I understand what’s going on before I go in with both barrels firing.

    • Yes. The government is collecting MUCH more than Amazon or Google.

      It’s true that companies have an unprecedented amount of information; however, we gave them that information by our own free will and choice. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc., have privacy agreements, terms, and conditions that we presumably read and agree to when we set up our accounts. Those companies have access to the information we consciously allow them to access, but they don’t have access to our emails and phone conversations. Also, and this is rather critical, Amazon and the others do not have an FBI, or a DHS, or law enforcement authority. That means when a 20-yr-old is stupid enough to post a picture of himself drinking at a frat party on Facebook, it is a foolish indiscretion which may or may not cause him trouble in the future. It is not the same as mailing the picture to the police.

      PRISM, on the other hand, subjects not only all of our phone calls, but all of our emails, social media activity, credit card transactions, bank withdrawals, and every other electronic transaction to computer analysis on behalf of the US government. It is all of our personal transactions collected and subjected to scrutiny with NO probable cause and NO legal warrants–even Obama and James Clapper both admit that FISA does not allow scrutiny of Americans or people on our soil. NO laws made by elected officials permit this type of privacy invasion. It is a form of surveillance inside each of our medical records, grocery purchases, bank transactions, book orders, library fines, etc., and they can, at any time they choose, listen to our phone conversations with no warrants that pertain to us as individuals and no probable cause. Amazon and Google can’t even do that.

      Not only is this complete body of information about your life at the disposal of the FBI, DHS, IRS, and every other agency, our US government is sharing that same complete access with a foreign nation, the UK. To the best of my knowledge, Amazon and Facebook do not know what took place in my daughter’s physical therapy appointment this morning. PRISM does.

      Not only that, these records are retained indefinitely. That means that someone who is a perfectly decent human being can go through a rough patch when they are 20, and if they fall under suspicion for anything at 40, it will be drug up in detail regardless of the fact that they have lived two unmarred decades. There is no shelf life or “statute of limitation” on the information that is collected.

      Think, too, what will happen when PRISM is hacked–and that’s only a matter of time if it hasn’t happened already. If it is hacked by criminals, it will be an invaluable resource for them to target their marks, whether for pedophilia or white collar devastations. If it is hacked by an enemy country, it will be an inestimable advantage in gaining the upper hand. And, possibly worst of all, there will inevitably be someone on the inside who is not so honorable as Edward Snowden, and who does not give a damn about America or any other ideal. With so much information at the fingertips of an individual who is willing to sell any of it to our enemies, the damage could be irreparable.

      The whole country went crazy over Nixon’s little illegal wire tap. PRISM is a “wire tap” on every single American, magnified by the power of every other electronic transaction we make. Nixon’s transgressions were a grenade next to the PRISM atom bomb.

      • Maybe I’m not so shocked anymore, Piper. I object to violations of the fourth amendment, but I know a lot of people who shrug about it all. I think I lost heart when people were not only willing, but thankful, to spread eagle and let TSA search our bodies with no cause. Do you think this can turn back? Or have we gotten to the point that people prefer security to liberty?

        • I’m sad to say, I do see us becoming a nation of kennel dogs, preferring the safe cage over not just liberty, but over responsibility. Freedom is the ultimate responsibility, and as long as we can drive to Walmart and get our cheap Chinese crap, most people are simply too comfortable and complacent to want the burden of silly things like the 2nd and 4th Amendments. So we ignore and even actively shut out information about Benghazi and PRISM because we’re just too spoiled. If we let the facts penetrate our cocoons of comfort, we’d have to get off our butts and do something about it. It’s so much easier to abdicate to those in charge, telling ourselves it’s for our own good. In that respect, we have the government we deserve.

          • So what do you do when you’re living in a country where maybe 10% of the people feel like you (and I) do? I sincerely wanted to pick a fight the last time I was at the airport and asked to show my goodies to somebody I’ve never met watching a screen in the next room, when they had no cause whatsoever to peek, but that just gets you on some bad-citizen list and holds up the line for everybody who’s willing to succumb. Okay, that’s enough from me. I try to avoid political rants online. LOL.

          • I hear you, for sure! I can’t help at least making rude faces at them. I really don’t know if it’s too late, but I certainly hope not.

          • Well, if I wasn’t on a “list” before, I am now! After talking with you. 😉 LOL.

  5. on ,
    CC Bowerman said:


    I wonder how big of a “PAC” investment a corporation might be willing to make to help a politician get reelected in exchange for information obtained by PRISM or other similar data mining efforts conducted by the federal government. What would that degree of information be worth to investment firms, banks, marketing departments etc.?

    Oh, but that’s right. Corporations have never used their money to wield political power and gain favors from federal regulators. Right? They would never pay for information like that to squash their competition. No politician in any democratic society ever has or ever will exchange government information, legislative influence, or regulatory favor for cash to his or her spouse. Right? Hey, it’s not a bribe if Slime Inc. appoints a senator’s wife to their board of directors and gifts her a few million in stock options. And it would never happen anyway. Right?

    It’s breathtaking to watch so many large media machines do awkward intellectual summersaults to minimize this entire scandal. I read one article that outlines an explanation about how all of this goes back to Kennedy and it only happened because the CIA betrayed him and forced him into the Bay of Pigs against his will. What a revisionist fantasy! I wonder how much that “journalist” and his employers received for publishing that crap.

    Don’t let any of this bother you. Our best safeguard is the fact that no government employee in the UK, Canada, or the USA has ever sold government information to an outsider. That could never happen. Right?

  6. Interesting video from Snowden. I wholeheartedly disagree with his idea that the “public” should be deciding policy however. Would this be the same public that votes for people like Rep. Gingrey, Rep. Michelle Bachman, or Rep. Todd Akin. *shudder*

    • I would agree on many things, but when it comes to spying on ourselves, I’m thinking we should have some say in the matter. Particularly when corporations and private individuals are benefitting from the intelligence collection. What concerns me most, though, is the idea that this horse is out of the barn, and we can no longer stop it.

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