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What is PRISM, and should we be alarmed about it?

Up until recently, there's every likelihood the word 'Prism' merely conjured images of light striking glass then reflecting in rainbow tones. That all changed when a certain employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA), Edward Snowden, leaked documents to The Guardian in the UK, and the Washington Post. Amongst these were PowerPoint slides which exposed a covert government surveillance operation - PRISM.

What is the purpose of PRISM?

Operations

PRISM is an electronic surveillance program that has been run by the NSA since 2007 (the title being a code word for a data collection system).

On the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against American targets, 11 September 2007, President George Bush signed the Protect America Act of 2007. This paved the way for a massive surveillance of electronic communications, on the pretext of tapping into terrorist networks to pre-empt their activities.

What was leaked?

Snowden decided to go public with details of PRISM because he was alarmed at the extent to which the government were 'snooping' on private messaging services. From his point of view, much of what the NSA were undertaking transcended US Law. He handed over some 41 PowerPoint slides with details of PRISM operations, four of which were published by the aforementioned newspapers.

As well as dishing the dirt on PRISM, the leaked documents also revealed collusion by several technology giants, including Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, AOL and Apple. According to analysis in the Washington Post, the bulk of the data harvesting was done from accounts run by Microsoft, Yahoo and Google.

Why was this considered such a serious issue?

Snowden alleged that the UK's own intelligence agency, GCHQ, were also involved in the mass interception of public communications. Commentators in Germany referred to the alarming spectre of government officials routinely hacking into civilian infrastructures, like something forecast by George Orwell.

What was the official response to Snowden

The US Government responded by admitting the existence of PRISM, but underlining that access to communication networks was strictly governed by the terms of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: the data collection could not "be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen or anyone located within the United States".

The Internet companies named in the leaked documents all strenuously denied that government officials would be able to routinely delve behind their firewalls to pick up on individual messages.

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