screenshotBig Brother, as depicted in the movie adaption of George Orwell’s “1984”Earlier this evening, the Washington Post reported an extraordinary story about a secret government program in which the National Security Agency and FBI have teamed up with 9 of the country’s most powerful tech companies to spy on the companies’ users.
In this program, called PRISM, the tech companies were said to have knowingly given the government direct access to their servers so the government could monitor real-time communications and activity of individual users.
The companies that partnered with the government, according to the story, included Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft (Skype).
This government-company partnership, the story reported, created a surveillance system so powerful that it allowed the government to follow the communications, document creation, and other activities of hundreds of millions of people in real time. The intelligence officer who leaked the story and documents to the Post, in fact, was said to be so horrified by the capabilities of the PRISM partnership that he went public to expose it.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly said.
And if the truth is exactly as the story describes it, the power of this partnership is indeed frightening.
If the government really does have direct real-time access to the “central servers” of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo, as the story says, the government has an unfettered, unsupervised, real-time ability to monitor the communications and activity of hundreds of millions of people around the world–including Americans, though the story emphasised that the point of the program is to spy on foreigners, not Americans.
The story emphasised that, given the complexity of the technology involved, such direct access to central servers would be impossible without the companies’ cooperation. And the story said that the companies were indeed “knowingly” participating in the partnership.
But here’s the problem.
In the few hours since the story appeared, all of the major tech companies named in the story as “partners” in the PRISM program have denied giving the government direct access to their servers. Apple even went so far as to say that it had never even heard of the PRISM program.
The companies all said they do provide the government with data about specific users when such responses are required by law, but this is not news. Americans have long understood that telephone companies, Internet companies, and other service providers provide government investigators with customer data when the law requires them to do so.
Providing historical data about specific users in response to a specific sub-poenas, however, is far different than “partnering” with the government and providing open, real-time access to central servers.
And it was that assertion that was the only really new and shocking part of the Washington Post’s PRISM story: The assertion that the government had “partnered” with 9 leading tech companies and been given the ability to “directly tap into their central servers…extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.”
If that part of the story is not true–and, so far, almost every company named in the story has said emphatically that it is not true–the most important assertion in the story is wrong.
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