Who’s Zooming Who? The Real Story of the Prism Program

The real story of the revelations of the Silicon Valley-NSA Spy Program is about power – who’s got it, and how they are using and abusing it. It is the story of the use and abuse of information, law, technology, and media. So before we get lost in the spin, let’s briefly pretend we are on another planet looking at the earth. We see vast know-how in science, engineering and technology being used by a coalition of powerful actors to control the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants. We also see that the system used is complex and vulnerable, defying absolute control.

Let’s begin to unravel the lies and noise which pervade. Lost in the language of national security, with its powers of diversion via ad hominem attack and fear-mongering, are some obvious truths. Silicon Valley corporations are in many ways more powerful than states, for they possess the know-how upon which governments depend. Google is the most powerful company ever. The state has outsourced its brain to the private sector as concerns its traditional sovereign functions of gathering intelligence and providing for defense and security. The relationship between technology companies and government has become more profitable than ever for those in the revolving door between the two, and more costly than ever for the public. The post-9/11 permanent war paradigm has abetted a profoundly anti-democratic dynamic whereby the lives of common people are completely transparent to those in power, while those in power are afforded an easily packaged and disseminated rationale for their actions to be kept secret.

Daily, we are fed propaganda. When The Guardian published the first installment of the leaked information about the Prism Program it began anew. I awoke that morning to BBC radio framing the central question as whether Ed Snowden can be extradited from Hong Kong to the U.S. – endorsing the official line that he had done something bad which put us in danger. Then, attacks on his mental stability and character followed. It was a replay of the line of attack taken by officialdom and parroted by the media following Wikileaks’ publication of the Iraq and Afghan war logs. The media next picked up on the hawkish theme that the problem to be examined is how a 29 year-old was given access to such vital classified national security information. All along, as Snowden was termed a ‘leaker’ or ‘traitor’ rather than a whistleblower, the assumption was that the revelations of the Prism Program were bad. Whatever happened to the idea that the truth shall set you free?

When a defense is offered for Snowden’s whistleblowing, the official response is that he acted irresponsibly – in that he didn’t use the available official channels for whistleblowers. Well, he’d be a fool to try to blow the whistle on the Prism Program within a government where all branches support the so-called balance between national security and privacy which tramples individual liberty, and in which those who dissent are called traitors. Whistleblowers have alerted the public to harmful practices in finance, corporate governance, nuclear safety, tobacco industry deception, and secret CIA-run prisons practicing torture in Europe, to name but a few of the benefits they have afforded us. Now, not only are leakers being called traitors, but so too are the journalists who vet and publish the leaked information. This unprecedented attack on journalists threatens investigative reporting, which is fundamental to a free press. Democracy demands an informed citizenry, right?

Secrecy is anathema to democracy yet has been given testosterone post-9/11. Secret courts, secret lawmaking, secret investigations and law enforcement are the rule of the day. Trust us we are told. If Big brother is watching and acting it is for your own good. But, history shows that, all too often, officials falsely claim that disclosing confidential information threatens national security. For example, when the documents at issue in U.S. v. Reynolds, the landmark 1953 Supreme Court case that established the state secrets defense, were declassified 40 years later, it was revealed that officials had misrepresented their contents in order to conceal embarrassing information. Power corrupts and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), the company for whom Mr. Snowden worked, is emblematic of the outsourcing and corruption of government. See Government Inc.,” TNP, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2008. BAH is one of the biggest most profitable companies in America – and nearly all of its $5.7 billion in revenue in 2012 came from government contracts. In fact, most of the $80 billion the U.S. government will spend on intelligence in 2013 will go to private contractors.

James Risen reports on “the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency (NSA) and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans. The only difference is that the NSA does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.” “Silicon Valley and Spy Agency Bound by Strengthening Web,” The New York Times, June 19, 2013. Risen’s reporting reveals a revolving door between government and tech companies, and the growing industry of data analytics, worth upwards of $10 billion annually.

In their practices with our data, tech company’s actions belie their words. While Google’s lawyer used the media following Mr. Snowden’s leak to reassure its users that the company only disclosed information it was lawfully required to provide the NSA, Risen reports that according to current and former officials, Silicon Valley companies put together teams of in-house experts to find ways to cooperate more completely with the NSA and to make their customers’ information more accessible to the agency. The primary product of the new media gatekeepers is the data they collect from us, and the government is their growing market for it.

Google, Facebook, Skype, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Wal-Mart, and the government are all using our data to control us. With the help of tech companies the NSA has been collecting data from our emails, audio and video chats, photos, documents and log-ins, purportedly to track foreign terror suspects. Of course this has led to diplomatic furor as the U.S. is violating European and other law in its Prism Program. Russia and China are seizing the opportunity to call America on its hypocrisy. Europe offers greater privacy protections to its people, but Britain has engaged in a spying program on par with America’s. Self-serving hypocrisy abounds.

We are told that the information obtained via the Prism Program has enabled law enforcement to thwart terror attacks. News reports obediently endorse this claim. Why would the government tell us anything other than that? Why should we believe such obviously self-serving claims used to justify unlawful invasive acts?

The quantity of mega data is roughly doubling every two years, but not only the government and its enablers have the means and know-how to utilize this data. Hackers developed the Internet, and many are committed to reversing the course of mega data being used to spy on and control us. The tools used to snoop on us also afford a means to empower us with information transparency. We just need to dig to connect the dots. In fact, the essence of the Prism Program was reported upon and available in the public domain before Ed Snowden leaked his information.

We live in an age of news nuggets. It is much easier to digest talking points than to connect the dots, but the information is there for us to see the big picture. Remember, most people now get their news from the Internet where businesses profit by generating clicks, so spin is easier than ever as in-depth coverage atrophies and investigative journalism is under political attack as the Espionage Act is wielded against writers and publishers as well as leakers. But for those willing to question the official story and dig for answers, truths will be revealed.

I will return to this story in more depth in September. In the meantime, think, and don’t believe the hype.

About the author:

The author, an attorney and constitutional law scholar, has written for TNP since 2006. He lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking, and is currently teaching a course at University of New York in Prague on News: Fact, Fiction, Fantasy?

published: 27. 6. 2013