PRISM — You Can’t Stop the Signal

By Piper Bayard

In one of my favorite Joss Wheden movies, Serenity, the crew of a small scavenger space ship, Firefly, risks everything to bring the truth to the people of the Alliance about how their government was lying to them and screwing them over. To do this, they transmitted a damning recording across every media outlet in the galaxy. For them, it worked, because, “You can’t stop the signal.”

image from Serenity

image from Serenity

What the movie did not show was what happened after the broadcast, which was most likely a lot of huffing and puffing from diverse quadrants, and then a mass forgetting the next time some celebrity choose a freakish baby name. What it didn’t show was how many people do not care what a government does, as long as they can believe it doesn’t affect them.

Which brings me to a far more relevant pop culture analogy—Game of Thrones. I don’t know if Edward Snowden watched either Serenity or Game of Thrones, but if he had watched or read the latter, he would have known that the honorable man who brings the truth to a nation is always the first to lose his head.

Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes, my writing partner, is no Edward Snowden. He is not disappointed in the Obama administration because he has been through enough presidents to not expect anything from them in the first place. Also, he never reveals anything Classified at any level; however, he does at times know what is true of what is public.

That being said, this is the information from the public domain that I would pass on to you, our readers.

The NSA has direct access to the servers of the PRISM Nine. (See PRISM Surveillance on Americans—What Price Convenience?) I’ve seen many people commenting around the net that they don’t care that the NSA knows what Google knows. After all, everyone knows the internet isn’t private. To those people, I would point out two things. First, Google doesn’t have an FBI and a DHS to arrest us. And second, the NSA reach does not stop at the voluntary information we give to Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and the rest. It also includes our emails, bank transactions, credit card purchases, phone records and the very content of the calls, themselves.

All of this data is collected and analyzed for red flags. Like someone going through our “Electronic Footprint House” on a continual basis, looking for missteps. If an analyst suspects any, he can listen to specific conversations and read specific emails without obtaining a warrant specific to us. In fact, in Mr. Snowden’s words, “The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications . . .”

image from

image from

There is one notable exception to this illegal invasion of privacy. Members of Congress have a special exemption from NSA surveillance. Sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? If the NSA isn’t spying on Americans, why would Congress need an exemption from the spying they’re not doing?

Not only is this data collected and stored on all Americans and subject to viewing at the whim of an analyst, it is exchanged with foreign countries. The Five Eyes—the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—have agreements in place between their intelligence agencies to share information on each other’s citizens.

This begs another question. Why would we spend money to illegally spy on our allies’ citizens? We are not at war with these people any more than we are at war with ourselves.

Sure, there are some maggots in those countries, just as there are some maggots in our own. Our Founding Fathers understood and accepted the fact that some maggots need to be spied on. However, they also understood that it was important to prevent the government from spying on its citizens without cause if we were to avoid devolving into tyranny. This dilemma was easily solved. It’s called a “warrant system.”

The requirement of obtaining a warrant does not in any way hinder intelligence and law enforcement agencies from acting in a timely fashion. Judges are available to approve warrants 24/7, 365 days a year. The judge’s staff then follows up with a paper document.

This procedure allows police and domestic intelligence operatives, such as the DHS, to act promptly while employing standard safeguards. The judicial system keeps records of what is requested and why. Eventually, any warrants issued for domestic eavesdropping became public knowledge. The warrant system prevents, or at least minimizes, abuse by elected officials and government employees while respecting the constitutional rights of Americans to enjoy reasonable privacy.

PRISM, however, has no such protections. The NSA eavesdrops with no judicial process, and citizens are not informed of the surveillance unless they commit felonies and are arrested. That means no accountability to the people. Think about it. A government that holds citizens responsible to it without a process in place for citizens to hold the government responsible to them is not a government by or for the people.

And it doesn’t stop there . . .

Eighteen days ago, when I first wrote about this Big Brother surveillance of Americans, I posed the following questions:

1)    Corporations sponsor and “own” politicians, so who in corporate America gets to benefit from this data collection?

2)    Do corporations who buy political figures get to use this technology to spy on their competitors?

Only days later, it became public knowledge that, indeed, there is an information exchange between our government and private corporations. You heard that correctly. Thousands of companies—finance, manufacturing, technology, etc.—receive benefits from the federal government in exchange for sensitive information about their clientele.

Having naïvely agreed to travel from Hong Kong to Ecuador via Moscow, Edward Snowden finds himself in Putin’s hands. For Putin, this is Christmas. For Edward Snowden, he might as well be Eddard Stark in the dungeons of King’s Landing. His winter is here, and when it comes to privacy protections in America, “Winter is Coming.”

meme by

meme by

We have seen time and again that technology, once developed, does not undevelop. You can’t stop the signal. However, we can choose how we will use it. Like nuclear weapons, the horse is out of the barn, but with careful controls and regulations, we have not used those nuclear weapons in nearly seventy years. Just because we have a tool, it doesn’t mean we have to use it in careless or evil ways.

Rather than calling for a shut-down of PRISM and its use, which would only create a more sophisticated government mouse, let us instead insist on understanding the unprecedented power of this program and treat it with the respect that it deserves. Let us instead focus this power toward the true enemies—not average Americans, but those who would terrorize and destroy us. Let us not do the job for them by continuing to turn this potentially devastating power on ourselves.

Penultimate Irony

Ultimate Irony

23 comments on “PRISM — You Can’t Stop the Signal

  1. Whoa! A post filled with facts about the Snowden case I didn’t know, Piper (and, Holmes).

    Interesting that congress was specifically exempted from surveillance by the system they knew nothing about. How very considerate of the NSA.

    I’m no fan of Snowden and his flight from the country. I am supportive of anything that helps us ferret out home-grown terrorists.

    Corporations and industries do own politicians — non-partisan observation. Push our agenda, and we’ll help you. It’s disturbing to know the NSA shares this data with their corporate friendlies. Since the NSA has no skin in that game, I can only conclude their actions are supported by the politicians who want continued support from select company/industries.

    Yes. Snowden is now stuck in a holding area in Moscow airport. Word on the news is he’s getting many visitors — China, Russian officials…

    I’ll watch for updates from unbiased and spot-on Bayard and Holmes as this brouhaha plays out.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      To be clear, I do NOT know know that Snowden is stuck in a holding area in the Moscow airport. I know that is what Putin says, and Putin is KGB to his core. He is one sharp cookie who is every bit as unscrupulous as he is savvy. He no doubt likes how his new Super Bowl ring looks on his finger as he laughs at the Obama administration’s bumbling.

  2. robakers says:

    Exactly spot on. There must be a legal process to this to protect us. And there is no reason not to allow for the legal process to exist, considering that the UK and the others are free to listen to everything we do. In turn they can share that information with American officials. The NSA can just as easily listen to everything going on in the UK and the other countries and share the results with the appropriate officials in the other countries. There is no true expectation of privacy anymore.

    I wonder if they can analyze smoke signals?

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Why not expect privacy? It is our right, and while technology changes, our rights do not. And is this a privacy issue, or a search and seizure issue? Why not expect our government, theoretically by and for the people, to protect our right against illegal search and seizure? Telephones were once cutting edge technology, and we have long had the ability to tap phones, yet Congress long ago made unwarranted wire taps illegal. It was one big damn deal when Nixon used that technology illegally. The capacity for the government to do that to everyone at the same time should not have us throwing up our hands and relinquishing our expectation that we have a right to privacy.

      You hit on a good point. If one of the Five Eyes gets busted by its citizens–as the US has–this arrangement allows them legal deniability. They can always say the other guy brought it to their attention. But do you honestly believe we are relying on New Zealand for our info? And why spy on our citizens without warrants at all, when warrants are so easily obtained? Why spy on our allies without warrants? One of the reasons we “won” the Cold War was because the KGB was putting 75% of its espionage efforts into spying on its own citizens. Americans have no reason to be so incredibly paranoid as to trash the warrant system and simply lay down for technology. It is what WE say it is.

      • robakers says:

        I agree with you 100%. There is no reason the NSA/CIA/whoever can’t get a court order to collect the information. I think it should be mandatory and that any violation should have a harsh penalty.

        There should also be a collection team of several independent folks who can judge the value of the information collected. These people should be outside the normal channels, but people who are able to hold the highest security clearances. Think of them as a jury of our peers, a group that can watch the watchers.

        However, I doubt these things will ever happen. Therefore I have to assume that my privacy is subject to be violated any time. More over I do not trust the elected officials that should be protecting us. Both sides of the isle are guilty of being weak, manipulated, and disingenuous. Do you trust Lindsey Graham, Harry Reid, John McCain, Barber Boxer? I do not. What about John Kerry, Eric Holder or Janet Napolitano? What about Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, John Bolton or John Ashcroft?

        I could drone on and on, but hopefully you get my point. My view is that they are all slaves to the collection system. They dance to the tune selected because to do otherwise is to risk being an outcast and losing the power that they dearly crave. That is a broad stroke and I hesitate stating it like that but without any evidence to suggest otherwise, my will protect myself to be best of my ability.

        I do think that New Zealand is a country that provides us with everything they get. They didn’t set up their own system without our help and that is a part of the deal. Get everything you can and give it to us. We will do the same and together we will be one big happy collection team. If I was setting up a system, that is how I would do it.

        • Jay Holmes says:

          “However, I doubt these things will ever happen. Therefore I have to assume that my privacy is subject to be violated any time. More over I do not trust the elected officials that should be protecting us.”

          Hi Robakers. “These things” were standard procedure prior to 9/11. As for politicians, I do not always agree with John McCain, but I do trust his loyalty to the United States. I am fairly liberal in my politics, and I feared that John Ashcroft would be a poor Attorney general. I was wrong. Ashcroft proved to be a very level headed Attorney general. He did support the Patriot Act, but then he openly opposed the NSA’s “Stellar Wind” program. Stellar Wind was a domestic spying operation against journalists.

          Harry Truman had to tread carefully when he created the CIA. At a time when nuclear annihilation was a real danger, he and the congress still managed to respect our constitution in how they created the CIA and NSA and how they controlled it. Depending on how you want to identify the roots of the NSA, we could actually say that it was founded under FDR.

          Though I have always been and always will be a harsh critic of politicians and of Intelligence operations, I remain stubbornly optimistic about our ability to do effective intelligence work without violating our constitution. I am not willing to accept the current mismanagement of the NSA as an unavoidable evil.

          Whether or not our constitutional rights will continue will not be decided by the NSA, the DHS, the CIA, the FBI or any of the political creatures that run them. Our rights will be determined by ourselves. As long as enough people care enough to oppose despotism, then despotism can not survive.

          • robakers says:


            Thank you for joining the discussion. Before I make my reply, please allow me to say a couple of things. The first is that I love the website you and Ms. Piper host. You guys have so much wonderfully enlightened information. A virtual treasure trove for someone like me. Thank You! Also, thank you for your service to the country. Both of you are patriots and it is a honor to be able to engage in this discussion. Finally, I don’t care if this is a three party discussion, you guys, me and the NSA. You guys ROCK!

            I find myself agreeing with your collective position about 99%. The is no reason to not have a court give the authorization for the collection of information.

            My disagreement is that I do not think that we collectively as US Citizens have the power to reign in the beast, and I do not see the political will in Washington DC to do anything more than act as a rubber stamp for the machine.

            Jay, you make a good point about John Ashcroft and I stand corrected. I should have added Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearl, Elliot Abrams, or William Boykin.

            Finally, you said this. “I do not always agree with John McCain, but I do trust his loyalty to the United States.”

            I do not doubt the love or loyalty of John McCain or any of the other politicians I mentioned. I think that when sufficiently moved, they act in a manner that is consistent with their personal opinions. But, they are rarely moved to act. I believe in this matter, they are not moved to do anything other than look the other way or maybe say some harsh words.

            I do have a question. If I want to oppose the NSA collection activities. How would I go about it?

        • Jay Holmes says:

          Hi Robakers. I suggest you send clear concise emails to your Congressmen. Let them know that you view this as their responsibility and their failure.

  3. tomwisk says:

    In answer to question 1; It’s a double headed snake. There are as amny politicians manipulating the companies as there are companies manipulating politicians.

    Question 2; Are you kidding me? Of course, honorable politician is an oxymoron,

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Tomwisk. I refuse to abandon the concept of the “decent statesman”. I concede that the current roster in congress makes my position more difficult to defend but they are not all felons.

  4. Well written. So much dust in the air – so many (often stupid) issues – the view of the road is getting obscured. Easy to get off track and sometimes hard to return.

  5. Ellie Ann says:

    Fantastic article. So well written. Thanks for this.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Ellie Ann. In Piper’s absence I thank you. I think Piper drove over to the NSA to deliver a bit of motherly anger at the bosses there.

  6. Julie Glover says:

    I’m finding it harder and harder to consider Mr. Snowden an honorable man.

    That said, I have big problems with what the NSA is doing. But then, I’ve had big problems about how the federal government has been trouncing on our 4th Amendment rights for some time now. In conversations with fellow Americans, however, I find that most are willing to give up quite a bit of privacy in order to feel a sense of security. Which is sad, I think, because if Nidal Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers can’t get the attention of law enforcement, what makes us think that NSA phone wires and TSA patdowns will make us safe?

    • Jay Holmes says:

      ” if Nidal Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers can’t get the attention of law enforcement, what makes us think that NSA phone wires and TSA patdowns will make us safe?”


  7. socritik says:

    Great post, fact filled, and asks a critical question, the real debate around the world.
    The internet is a platform, tool, or to describe it as it is, a new organisational structure that forces collaboration between individuals who have individual ultilities, similar to a big information and interaction market. Terrorists are one of those users, evidently. How do you eliminate the fact that they are using the internet platform for coordination…? You change the whole platform!!!
    Internet’s utility is derived from the fact that it is not expensive, simple, and completely anonymous.
    By altering the web, the bad guys have won. I always thought the intelligence community was one of the most innovative people around, but apparently, in front of terrorism fears, they just go back to their basic insticts, survival, burn the ground…

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Socritic. ” I always thought the intelligence community was one of the most innovative people around, but apparently, in front of terrorism fears, they just go back to their basic insticts, survival, burn the ground…”

      The intelligence community is immense and diverse. Some members are innovative. Some are dull slugs that were only hired because they are related to a politician or because their journalist parent is being done a favor by said politician in exchange for the routine ass-kissing that passes as journalism in our democracies. Some are hired because huge numbers of people are needed and the hiring practices are not bad but not magical, or because the people doing the hiring are not following basic policies and safeguards.

      The instincts and skills of an intelligence employee should not matter when it comes to national policies. The NSA is not supposed to be the KGB. This is a democracy and our allies have democracies. The elected officials are sworn to defend their respective constitutions. Prism is not all that innovative it is just a natural application of the available technologies. It is no doubt presented as a brilliant new innovation because if the taxpayers can’t get results for their money at least they can get a cool marketing campaign.

      The bottom line is that our elected officials have the responsibility to set policy and provide direct oversight of all our intelligence operations. Weather or not some windbag general over at the NSA wants to spy on our own citizens without warrants or a practical need should not even matter. When it comes to setting policies the only thing Congress and the White House (our not very productive hired hands) need to hear from anyone at the NSA is “Yes, Sir or No, Sir”.

      The problems with PRISM and other domestic spying initiatives are of a political nature. What anyone at CIA, DHS, or NSA thinks about policy decisions should not matter beyond their one vote.

  8. There is a Kiwi take on all this – in giant letters on a billboard approximately 8 metres wide on the main Wellington motorway, here in NZ. For a bit of context, it’s part of an advertising campaign that’s been around a while. The schtik is a setup line (that changes) matched against a static and thoroughly sarcastic payoff phrase that, basically, captures our laconic national approach to humour. The setup line gets changed based on topical events.

    This week the board got changed to:

    “America is just backing up our data. Yeah right.”

    And what is the billboard advertising with this slogan? Beer.

    Yup – the US spy scandal is being used to advertise beer here. Really!

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. It sounds like the average Kiwi is reacting to having their human rights trampled with the same casualness as the average American is reacting.

      • To some extent, though culturally, we tend to find black humour in things we take seriously. Laconic irony has been developed to a cultural art form. The main issue seizing NZ at the moment was triggered by the Dotcom case, which led to revelations that the GCSB (our equivalent of the NSA) had spied on Herr Schmitz, not realising he was a naturalised New Zealander – it’s illegal for them to spy on New Zealanders.There is legislation before the House now to adjust those powers, a much more immediate point of issue for New Zealand than any US developments – it’s this local matter that has seized the media headlines here, with some proper investigative journalism going into it, and a robust political debate.

  9. KM Huber says:

    Just wanted to add my thanks for yet another thoughtful, cogent post. Always, this blog provides information and basis for discussion, and it is much appreciated. As for this current issue, I think Julie Glover’s comment and Jay’s response sum up my feelings better than I could articulate. Thanks, again, to both of you.

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