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What You Need to Know About the NSA Prism Program

A public debate on privacy rights erupted on June 6, 2013 when the Washington Post published a report that summarized the National Security Agency's surveillance program called PRISM. The reason you may not have heard of this program is because it was top secret until popular media outlets covered the Post article that was based on a document leaked by former CIA technician Edward Snowden. A secondary public debate followed whether or not Snowden violated national security laws.

Sharing Private Information

The Post article named nine Silicon Valley tech giants as participants in the PRISM program to provide customer information to the NSA and FBI. The first company to join the program was Microsoft in 2007. In the next few years Yahoo, Google, Facebook and PalTalk joined the program. Though speculated, it’s important to note that some internet service providers were not involved. Since 2010, according to Snowden, other tech companies to enter the program have been YouTube, AOL and Skype. The report said Apple joined in 2012, but Apple responded on June 6 saying they had never heard of PRISM and do not share confidential information with authorities except with a court order.

Snowden claimed that the government has direct access to the servers of these nine tech companies, collecting personal information whenever they want. The following Friday The Guardian in London reported a similar secret surveillance story about the U.K. government working with the same U.S. tech companies. PRISM was launched by the Bush Administration in 2007. Congress then passed the Protect America Act of 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. These laws protected corporations who shared customer phone and internet records through this program.

Government Response

James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence reported to the press on June 6 that the purpose of the PRISM program is to defend Americans against national threats. He said the program is legal and called the leak of this information reprehensible and a security risk. The Post article claimed that the government has access to a wide array of digital files, email, VoIP, video conference calls and online social media information.

A week after the leak the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers from Michigan, announced the declassification of certain NSA information so that Americans can understand the program better. He also said he hoped that national security decisions would not be affected by a troubled "high school dropout." General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, stated that agency and lawmakers will work together on assessing the damages caused by the leak.

Privacy Rights

Larry Klayman, the founder of advocacy group Freedom Watch, filed a pair of class action lawsuits against the federal government, seeking damages estimated at $23 billion. Klayman claims that the NSA's program violates the first and fourth amendments. The lawsuit names several government entities such as President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department, the NSA and twelve tech companies. The lawsuit was filed the same week as Klayman's other lawsuit against Verizon and the government.

About the Author

Chris Jones is a freelance writer covering all things current.

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