PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.
Nine of the largest U.S. internet companies, comprising Silicon Valley’s murderer’s row and the hubs of the vast majority of online communication for the U.S. and the world, are cooperating or have been compelled to work with the NSA and the FBI on widespread surveillance of Americans and ‘foreigners’ in the War on Terror. And that comes on the heels of a report from The Guardian that the NSA has been collecting metadata for every call made through Verizon, and then more revelations that the data collection extends to essentially all telecommunications providers.
So the NSA knows that you call your Mom every other Tuesday. And they probably have a log of that ill-advised Facebook chat you had with your ex-girlfriend three years ago at 2:30 in the morning, even though you hoped that everyone forgot. Apparently this helps catch terrorists.
Hopefully these programs being somewhat out in the open will spark real debate, but the immediate response of top Senate and House officials to the Verizon controversy – full support – does not bode well. And since the Administration’s first response was to announce a hunt for The Guardian‘s source, right in line with the actions that have gotten them in hot water in the past few weeks, it’s doubtful that we’ll see any change to the White House whistleblower policy any time soon.
That President Obama once publicly criticized the executive branch’s monitoring of innocent Americans and then changed his position after gaining access to that power demonstrates an age-old warning of civil libertarians and privacy advocates: once such “temporary” powers are granted or rights taken away, it’s much harder said than done to turn back the clock. In fact, it only makes it easier to erode rights and liberties a little more.