Why PRISM Matters

By Piper Bayard

I could list the civil liberties we have lost since 9/11, from security against unreasonable search and seizure to the officially sanctioned vilification of those who exercise their right to bear arms, but that would be a dissertation and not a blog. The sum total result, however, can be expressed in one sentence:  The balance of power has shifted.

PRISM protest at Checkpoint Charlie image by Digitale Gesellschaft

PRISM protest at Checkpoint Charlie
image by Digitale Gesellschaft

In a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the government answers to the people. Its operations and the governing subset are subject to the scrutiny of the public. The people are secure from search and seizure—even in their communications—by the ruling subset of the population, and the people have the right and the ability to overthrow that subset by elections should the government grab too much power. The people are the masters, and the government is their servant.

When the government spies on us with everything from street corner cameras to DHS agents on our highways that perform warrantless searches of random individuals to collection and analysis of our every electronic transmission and phone communication, we are no longer the masters, and the government is no longer our servant. It is our ruler. It is a parent searching our rooms and opening our mail on the off chance that we MIGHT be doing something it doesn’t want us to do.

The difference between the government being the servant and the government being the master is a warrant. When an agency such as the NSA, FBI, DHS, etc., is required to obtain a warrant, an official paper trail is created by which the people can make the government answer for who and how it searches, why it searches, and what it obtains. It is a record by which citizens can hold the government accountable for its actions in a court of law.

With PRISM, every email, every phone communication, every bank transaction, every purchase involving a credit card, debit card, or check, and, once Obamacare is fully implemented, every health record is collected on all Americans. When trigger words* like “snow,” “bust,” or “sick” alert analysts, countless individuals who work for the government and in the private sector are free to peruse and interpret the threads of our lives at their personal discretion. Everything they do is off the record. No probable cause. No warrant. No accountability to the public. It is the act of a ruler, not the act of a servant.

Even with the evidence out about PRISM, our president claims that his administration is not spying on Americans. Yet he also states unapologetically that his administration will continue to collect and analyze all of our private communications with no probable cause or warrant to do so—in the name of “safety.” He is only admitting that much because of Snowden’s leaks. The true question lies in the things our president is not admitting.

Photo by Jeff Schuler wikimedia commons

Photo by Jeff Schuler
wikimedia commons

In 1972, America was shaken to its core by Nixon’s one warrantless wire tap. PRISM is a warrantless wire tap of every American and foreigner within our borders. Each and every one of us is now assumed guilty until proven innocent. Each and every one of us now answers to the government master that was once our servant. I’m not saying we shouldn’t spy on terrorists within or without our borders. I’m saying let there be warrants. Let there be public records. Let there be accountability. Do not allow the government to exercise such omnipotent power with impunity.

Prior to PRISM and to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, warrantless searches were allowed under urgent circumstances, but the after the search, the government agents involved still had to make a record and show probable cause retroactively. In most cases, terrorist investigators working in the US had plenty of time to take the few minutes needed to get a warrant from an on-call judge. There is no known history of any case in which the requirement for a warrant prevented investigators from acting in time.

Freedom is about dignity and responsibility—it is not about perfect security from cradle to grave. When we abdicate our responsibility for our freedom in favor of comfort and the illusion of safety, an illusion the Boston bombing should have shattered, we also surrender our dignity and our choices. We become wards of the state. What were once our rights as responsible adults are now merely our privileges as subjects, granted or withheld by our rulers at their whim and discretion. We must demand more of our leaders. Freedom can be won, and freedom can be surrendered, but Freedom will never be given back once successfully taken by the ruling class. PRISM is that taking.

*Department of Homeland Security Analyst’s Desktop Binder

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 weknowmemes.com

image from weknowmemes.com

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 bizarrojerri.wordpress.com

meme by bizarrojerri.wordpress.com

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

PRISM Surveillance on Americans–What Price Convenience?

By Piper Bayard

Sure, I could be writing about my debut dystopian thriller, FIRELANDS, which was released last week by Stonehouse Ink. In fact, I planned to do that very thing. And while I certainly hope you’ll decide to check it out, there is something even more important happening that we need to discuss.

Last week, former National Security Agency (“NSA”) intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward and released training slides used to train operatives at the NSA in a surveillance program called PRISM. PRISM allows the NSA to collect data directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple and search for any information on anyone at all. It was begun under a previous administration for the purpose of collecting information on foreign terrorists. It was greatly expanded by President Obama to include data collection on all Americans. These are two of the slides.

PRISM - Providers & Dates when collection began

PRISM Collection details

Some of these companies cooperated without protest. Others required warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”). However, FISA does not grant authority to collect data on Americans or others within US borders, something which PRISM does. All of these companies are denying knowledge and participation at this point.

Not only does the NSA directly access these companies’ servers, which serve primarily Americans, they are sharing PRISM’s power of unbridled access into our internet usage with the UK government. That’s right. The GCHQ – that’s the UK’s NSA equivalent – has the same access to all of our information that our own Obama administration is enjoying.

As for President Obama, he and his administration are, of course, downplaying the whole PRISM-gate and denying that PRISM was ever used to collect data on Americans or on people living in the US. At the same time, he says this is a “modest encroachment” on privacy that is a worthy trade off for preventing terrorism. (Attorneys will recognize this as “arguing in the alternative.”) Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union disagree with the inconsequential nature of these violations and are considering the legal options on behalf of the American people and others living within US borders.

As a recovering attorney, I could give you my take on the constitutionality and legal implications of this surveillance program. As a senior intelligence operative, Holmes could certainly enlighten us were he at liberty to do so. However, former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden says it best in his own words. Please take a few minutes to listen to this interview with him about PRISM, why he gave up the good life he led in Hawaii—he can never go home again—and what he hopes to accomplish with his revelations.

Programs like PRISM are extremely powerful and can reach into anyone’s email, internet records, and phone records. I am not suggesting that America should not track terrorists, but I see no sign from the Obama administration that any safeguards whatsoever are in place. Instead, the president suggests that we should take it all on good faith that his administration is not targeting Americans. Strong echoes of Richard Nixon’s infamous, “Trust me.”

In all of the stir this has created, we haven’t yet heard the deeper questions. Corporations sponsor and “own” politicians, so who in corporate America gets to benefit from this data collection? Do corporations who buy political figures get to use this technology to spy on their competitors? Do the IRS and other agencies get to use this information collected on us in the name of safety for their own purposes? After all, it’s much easier to target political opponents with such things as IRS scrutiny when their entire communication history is available for review.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, the most important point to remember is this:  the American government doesn’t do anything that the American people don’t let it get away with—yet. Where will we draw our line?

Related Links:

1)    Here’s the Law the Obama Administration is Using as Legal Justification for Broad Surveillance. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

2)    Obama: No One is Listening to Your Calls. Michael Pearson, CNN Politics, June 9, 2013.

3)    Obama Blasts Media ‘Hype’ Over Secret Program, Calling Them ‘Modest Encroachments on Privacy’. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

4)    Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations. Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Lora Poitras, The Guardian, June 9, 2013.

5)    NSA PRISM Program Taps in to User Data of Apple, Google, and others. Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, June 6, 2013.

6)    U.S., British Intelligence Mining Data from Nine U.S. Internet Companies in Broad Secret Program. Barton Gellman and Lora Poitras, The Washington Post, June 7, 2013.