PRISM: Should We Really Be Concerned About It?

Episode 985 (01:29)

News came out this week that the US government has a back door to major technology companies that allow them to data mine email, text messages, and other data from Americans for national security. Leo says it's important to know the facts before judging, though. First, how deep and wide does the data mining go? According to the NSAs charter, they can't spy on citizens inside the United States -- only the FBI can do that.

Companies involved allegedly include Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Verizon, and other telephone companies. They are required by law to provide data when presented with a National Security letter that is generated by FISA courts with judicial and congressional oversight. These letters also state that the company keep it secret. This has been going on for a decade under the Patriot Act. The only information being collected, according to Glenn Greenwald, is who is placing and receiving the calls, and the duration of the calls. It's already prevented one terrorist act.

According to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google, there is no "back door" into their servers. The government would have to request the data, and as such, both have reserved secure servers with dropbox-like access.

At the end of the day, we don't really have enough information to know one way or another how intrusive this NSA program is or has become. Michael Arrington wrote an article on Uncrunched strongly opposing the NSA program and saying that we're being misled. From an engineering point of view, however, it could make more sense so long as the data is on a secure server, encrypted, and all oversight is observed. Cellphone companies have portals for law enforcement and don't even need a warrant or court order to receive the information. They just have to pay $1.50 for a "pen register" and get the information they want. Leo suspects that PRISM is no different.

However, Leo also says it's unreasonable to think the government isn't or hasn't been spying on everyone. While everyone is up in arms about Google and Facebook, your ISP could be giving the government data. Echelon has been going on since the 90s and nobody disputes it. Whether the feds have a back door isn't really the issue. The issue is where the data is being stored and what it's being used for. Computers are always scanning emails looking for keywords and patterns. No human is actually reading through your email, though.

If you're concerned, then by all means get active. Contact your representatives and tell them to end the Patriot Act. Or you can encrypt your own data at all levels.