After the recent revelations about PRISM, many are now pressing the New Zealand Government for more information on how much involvement its own spy agency, Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has had with PRISM and how much of that was used to spy on its citizens.
Now that the dust has settled on Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing leaks regarding PRISM, we should have another look at the claims made by The Guardian and The Washington Post. According to these newspapers, PRISM, the code name for a National Security Agency led initiative, grants the foreign security arm of the US Government unprecedented, direct access to data held by tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple.
These revelations caused a storm of international protest and outrage. But what was the truth behind these headline-grabbing revelations? It seems the real story is far less exciting. As tech-news website ZDNet revealed, the Washington Post revised the online version of its original story about PRISM the day after publication. The revised version no longer asserted that these internet companies had ‘knowingly participated’ in this surveillance, nor did it claim that the state had ‘direct access’ to the servers of Facebook and the other major companies.
On closer inspection, it seems then that PRISM did not allow the indiscriminate trawling of social networking sites. It was, rather, as Wired put it, ‘a programme for making it easier for [internet] companies to comply with court orders for data, including creating special government drop boxes for requested data’. PRISM was merely the process by which data was requested, in compliance with court orders or national security letters, from certain internet companies.
As CNET notes: ‘The system described in the PRISM [PowerPoint] presentation appears to be an automated way to process those FBI and NSA requests.’ This was backed up by a New York Times investigation into the claims: ‘Each of the nine companies… drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders.’ So as Tim Black points out, while the NSA is definitely looking at some peoples’ online records, and requesting permission to do so from Facebook and Google via the PRISM process, it does not have the unmediated and immediate access to our Gmail or Facebook accounts claimed by The Guardian and initial reports from The Washington Post.
Shoddy journalism seems to be at the heart of the PRISM shock headlines. But this should not prevent us from highlighting the very real problem of increased in state surveillance. In New Zealand the proposed Related Legislation Amendment Bill and the Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Bill (TICS), currently in front of Parliament are cause for alarm. As Thomas Beagle, founder of online civil liberties watchdog Tech Liberty New Zealand points out, a new proposed security bill could give GCSB spying powers that far overshadow what is happening with PRISM in the US. Although the proposed Bills do not change the requirement for a warrant, it does give a new Ministerially-approved exception where the GCSB cannot otherwise gain lawful access. And it should be noted, that regardless of PRISM or the new proposed legislation, the GCSB tends to act around the law when it chooses as was revealed with the recent Dotcom investigations.
But while PRISM itself does not allow unmediated and immediate access to our Gmail or Facebook accounts, routine surveillance of social network sites is in fact being carried out by the police on an almost daily basis. In the UK, for example, there has been a spate of arrests and prosecutions following “grossly offensive” comments made on Twitter or Facebook (see the recent cases of Michaela Turner, Benjamin Flatters and Tony Perrin).
However, unlike the collective shock expressed over the revelations surrounding PRISM, this particular form of state surveillance of social networks (and subsequent imprisonments) has not caused the same outrage. Those opposed to this increase in state surveillance should be worried about these trends and challenge any attempts to limit our internet freedoms or freedom of expression.