The ‘Prism’ scandal

‘Prism’ is the code name of a large-scale operation launched by the USA in order to monitor the cyberspace because of strategic reasons, recently unveiled to the public through “indiscretions” communicated by anonymous sources to high-circulation newspapers from the Anglo-Saxon world (‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Washington Post’). The high-profile political scandal sparked by these ‘indiscretions’ is probably only at its beginning, and when it detonated into the media it made necessary the intervention of President Barack Obama to calm down the media storm.
In fact, the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ came into possession of a slide-presentation apparently aimed at training the US federal agents (41 slides) which operate in the field and are related to this programme. According to this presentation, American authorities, the National Security Agency (NSA) to be more precise, are legally allowed to monitor the phone calls and cyber communications of foreign or US citizens – travelling abroad – in order to find possible connections in the fight against terrorism.

What alerted the British and American public – practically the articles which surfaced last Thursday (June 6) in the aforementioned American newspapers established real records of comments, the British one around 3,000 and the American one over 5,000 – was the technological possibility confirmed by this programme of practically monitoring the communications of US and British citizens – as there is an official accord with this regard between US and British authorities – in the electronic environment and, by extension, in the whole world. And this would be possible due to the fact that the arrangement between American and British authorities also includes as parts the big online social networks, with the most numerous and important of them having their servers in the USA, hence subject to monitoring. According to the document obtained by the British newspaper, the large internet networks used at global scale, such as Yahoo or Google, are part in this clandestine data collection programme, which in fact represent a valuable bank containing very important data, which exceed by far the strategic interest of identifying the terrorist danger. Microsoft was the first network included in this programme in 2007, followed by Yahoo in 2008, Google, Facebook, and PalTalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, Skype and AOL in 2011, while Apple became associated to the programme in 2012 (what misses is the Twitter network which, apparently, resisted to authorities’ demands). According to the newspaper, the ‘indiscretion’ was facilitated by the public unveiling of a court order that forced the American telephone company Veziron to deliver the phone records of millions of American subscribers. Later, an agent of the US intelligence services (who already identified himself Sunday, in a letter sent to ‘The Guardian’, as a certain Edward Snowden, CIA operative ‘vacationing’ in Hong Kong who now fears extradition, and on Monday he also granted an interview to the same newspaper) delivered the 41 Powerpoint slides that allowed unveiling the whole affair. What is now a certainty, ever since 2007, the George W. Bush administration adopted the legal measures required for the surveillance operations in the ‘Prism’ programme, adding that initially these accords with the internet giants provided the delivery of information only in singular cases, with legal approval. During the Obama administration, the access of authorities to data banks and records made by the global internet companies was expanded from US citizens also on individual bases legally approved to the entirety of these data, only on serious presumptions regarding the connections with international terrorism. When, in December 2012, the US Congress assumed changes of the pertinent legislation, some senators tried to identify – to no avail – the way this programme operates, given the suspicions that it infringes the private life of citizens.
The value of the information collected through the ‘Prism’ programme is demonstrated by the document leaked to the press, which specifies the fact that trillions of messages/communications monitored and recorded represent the source of many strategic information items submitted to the president and the members of the government. Last year alone, using the data of this programme made the object of 1,477 notes, practically such data representing the raw material for the seventh part of the total number of intelligence reports produced by American agencies.
It is worth mentioning that the ‘Prism’ programme has a long history behind, like other similar ones, corresponding to the technology of the era, as he is in effect ever since the ‘70s of last century. Presently there are other similar programmes, like that operated under the code name Blarney, which also provides data to the US intelligence community by tapping into the big global internet networks. Such programmes are top secret and expanded after the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the start of the global fight against terrorism.
Readers posted a wide range of comments after these cases were unveiled. Many declare themselves overtly revolted by the considerable negative impact of these programmes upon civil liberties (there are many references to ‘Big Brother’ or Orwell with his ‘1984’, a fiction in which the whole planetary activity is under electronic supervision and people became just manipulated machines), wondering what difference there is compared to the totalitarian regimes that suppress the freedom of speech, and doubt the idea that such data are used only in the fight against terrorism, saying they are also used in economy, politics, science etc., in order to give the technological edge to US corporations. Other comments reveal that such measures are needed to prevent large-scale terrorist attacks, as US officials referred on several occasions to cases of countering large-scale incidents (without precise details, of course). A reader comments the reality of these ‘indiscretions’ that refer to the ‘Prism’ programme this way: ”Most smartphones record your location, and it would be silly to think that any major company wouldn’t give up user information to the government of any country, in order to do business there. The internet is the death of privacy, and the beginning of an open society. It could be a good thing, if it led to governmental transparency, but right now, it’s simply a way to spy on everyone, all the time.” What sparked major concern and unrest among the public – as obviously proven by the aforementioned comments – is that fact that internet giants assure their users that they enjoy the confidentiality of their personal communications, which is revealed as being just empty promise by this scandal. It is equally true that officials of these internet networks stated that they are unaware about the existence of this programme , with several details presented by the international press showing that this data collection does not have the all-encompassing character which the public fears as a whole.
Set aside the evolution of this dossier, which equally relates to the internal political competition in the USA, it remains evident that a regulation of the international cyberspace is necessary in order to prevent the transformation of the internet into a weapon controlled by antidemocratic forces, or which can be used with serious consequences in the global competition specific to the Westphalian-type system we live in.

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