Saturday, 22 June 2013

PRISM surveillance: Unpicking the myths and identifying the threats

Revelations about surveillance methods used by the US Government, prompted by leaks from intelligence operative Edward Snowden, are analysed by CI's digital expert, senior policy officer Jeremy Malcolm. 

Although the basics have been widely reported, there is still a lot of confusion out there about how all the pieces of the PRISM surveillance scandal fit together, so here's the rundown.

First, on Thursday 6 June, came the revelation in the Guardian of a secret court order requiring US phone carrier Verizon to disclose a complete set of records of telephone calls made over a three-month period.

Less than a day later the Guardian and Washington Post claimed that under a separate secret US government programme, named PRISM, the National Security Agency had direct access to the servers of major Internet companies including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, enabling it to obtain content ranging from emails to chat transcripts, voice calls, photos and videos.

By Friday, all of the Internet companies concerned had denied knowledge of the PRISM programme, and President Obama defended both that programme and the secret court order to Verizon as modest encroachments on privacy. 

It was on Sunday 9 June that 29-year-old former NSA-contractor Snowden came forward as the informant, for which he had released a set of Powerpoint slides as evidence.

Although the initial reports suggested a broader scope, we now know that PRISM isn't really a separate surveillance programme in its own right, but just an NSA system which facilitates the transfer of information from Internet companies under various other programmes for the use of NSA operatives.

The affected companies' denial of knowledge of PRISM is therefore most probably true.

But those other programmes are bad enough. In addition to those already mentioned, a programme similar to that used to obtain the Verizon call data is used to obtain metadata about Internet communications.

This programme, called BLARNEY, gathers and stores metadata as it flows along Internet network backbones. Another Patriot Act amendment authorises the interception of the content of foreign-to-foreign communications that transit through the United States.

This is what we think we know, but it is difficult to know how much of the truth has yet been told.

On March 12, 2013, the NSA's James Clapper had told the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the NSA does not wittingly collect any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. In the light of subsequent revelations, there is no way around it – that was a lie.

A sour taste was also left in the mouths of many around the world when President Obama's response to the recent revelations was, “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States”, discounting the effect on the privacy of most innocent citizens of the world who happen to use US-based Internet services.

As part of the Best Bits civil society coalition that CI co-founded last year, a group of NGOs and individuals from around the world wrote a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week condemning the surveillance as an abuse of human rights.

This letter now has over 300 endorsements, and has been followed up with a letter to the US Congress which was delivered today, and which has over 250 endorsements so far. A key paragraph of the letter to Congress states:

We are also extremely disappointed that, in all the post ‘disclosures’ statements, US authorities have only insisted that there was no access obtained to content related to US citizens, and just their communication meta-data was collected.

There has not been a word on the issue of large-scale access to content related to non US citizens, which constitute an almost certain human rights violation.

The focusing of the US authorities on the difference between treatment of US citizens and non-citizens on an issue which essentially relates to violation of human rights is very problematic.

Human rights are universal, and every government must refrain from violating them for all people, and not merely for its citizens.

We strongly advocate that current and future legal provisions and practices take this fact into due consideration.

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