PRISM, the latest surveillance program leaked to the press, makes the collection of metadata from the three major phone companies seem quaintly old-fashioned. Its Big Brother implications are stunning from the standpoints of both technology and audacity.
I've written twice this week on how presidents routinely overstep the bounds when they are facing urgent security threats like war or al-Qaida, and how that should not be shocking, given the stakes. But PRISM, which reportedly allows the government to track people's Internet activities as they occur, does come as a shock.
The metadata collected by the National Security Agency from Verizon and other phone companies is an aggregation of phone numbers and lengths of calls, and does not harvest the content of the calls. PRISM, first disclosed Thursday night by The Washington Post and The Guardian, is different. According to the intelligence official who leaked the information to The Post: "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type."
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, says PRISM is "important and entirely legal" and "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States." Obama himself said Friday that he was skeptical about NSA surveillance programs when he took office, but he and his team concluded after assessing them that "they help us prevent terrorist attacks."
Both the phone and Internet programs are "under very strict supervision" by all three branches of government, Obama said, and added that he has put in place new safeguards and audits. He called the encroachment on privacy modest. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said, or reading the email of U.S. citizens.
Still, the stew of threats, technology, and government authority seems like a scandal waiting to happen. The potential for invasion of privacy is as enormous as the scale of the program. PRISM reportedly involves nine giant Internet companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. Some are denying they participate.
PRISM dates from the George W. Bush administration and, according to Clapper, has been overseen by Congress and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That means some insiders wouldn't have been surprised by the revelations and may explain why former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer stood by it last night when I asked him about it. "I support it, just as I support detecting patterns that can lead us to terrorists," he told me on Twitter.
The leaked information makes clear that the PRISM program is central to U.S. intelligence gathering. Clapper called the unauthorized disclosure of its existence "reprehensible" and said it "risks important protections for the security of Americans."
In fact the twin leaks of PRISM and the phone data-collection program appear more serious and consequential than the leaks that led the Justice Department to investigate the Associated Press and Fox News' James Rosen.
Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have all but admitted overzealousness in those two investigations, in which Rosen was labeled a coconspirator and so many AP phone records were subpoenaed that one member of Congress called it a constitutionally questionable dragnet. Obama and Holder have been trying to dial back and reassure the media that reporters won't be prosecuted for doing their jobs.
Investigations of these latest leaks will be a stiff test of their restraint, and their ability to explain why PRISM in particular is not something that should worry people who use the Internet. In other words, almost everyone in America.