The NSA's headquarters in Maryland. via.
On Friday, the world found out about PRISM: a secret tool developed by the United States’ National Security Agency that has been used, since 2007, to directly tap into the servers of companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple without the permission of the corporations themselves. From what has been described by the Guardian and their source Edward Snowden, a former employee of the private security contractor Booz Allen, the NSA has been recording anything and everything they can through the capabilities of a massive surveillance net that is growing exponentially in size.
As Edward Snowden described to the Guardian in a video interview, from an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, anyone who is deemed suspicious by the NSA can be painted as a threat. With so much information being recorded, anyone who falls under the suspicion of the NSA can potentially be portrayed as a “wrongdoer” through archived recordings of their instant messages, phone records, emails, and online activities. If they want to attack you, they can, and the danger of innocent people being portrayed as threatening individuals is a real concern that people need to be discussing. And while this possibility is of little worry to the average citizen, to people like Edward Snowden or Wikileaks’ infamous military source Bradley Manning who have attempted to challenge the institutions of power, the consequences are very grave.
In Canada, some people may not feel too alarmed by the revelations that Edward Snowden has brought to the public eye. For one, this is the work of the US Government, not the Canadian government. But it is crucial to remember that the respective sovereignty of citizens on the internet is blurry at best. For example, here is a map of where your communications go when you visit Facebook from, say, Toronto.
None of the data a Canadian stores on Facebook—their photos, check-ins, private messages, friends list, or event attendance records—is saved within Canada. This is all data that is living inside of American servers. For all intents and purposes, the internet as we know it is American owned. There is no Canadian alternative to Facebook that’s stored on encrypted servers, running from an ice floe somewhere in the arctic. We have willingly begun to trust all of our online conversations to American corporations, in an environment where the government has decided to break down the back doors of these websites and examine whatever they want, whenever they want. The same goes for Google.
The above map shows where your internet traffic goes when you access Gmail from Toronto. For most of you, Gmail is probably where you coordinate your day-to-day conversations. It may even be where you have banking info, your SIN number, intimate photos, or chat logs that describe whatever sketchy shit you’re up to these days. Again, all of that has been entrusted to an American corporation that is currently being monitored in semi-secrecy (the semi part is thanks to Edward Snowden) by the NSA. When you consider the amount of data that can be collected about you through Gmail and Facebook alone, it wouldn’t be hard to build a criminal dossier on someone who, say, has coordinated a few weed transactions and traded some illegal links to streaming TV shows or album downloads using these services.
What’s more is that the NSA is defending this leak by stating PRISM is only used to target non-US Citizens; a fact that should make PRISM even more concerning for Canadians. As Edward Snowden revealed to the Washington Post, the NSA only need to be 51% sure, “the lowest conceivable standard,” that the suspicious individual they are targeting lives outside of the US. So basically, from what we know, there is a very shaky system of checks and balances to determine what country a target of PRISM is currently living in. This should make it quite clear that this new, online surveillance monster has in fact jeopardized the privacy of Canadians.
Now, again, it may seem crazy to think the NSA is going to come down on anyone who is living a legal and ordinary life, even if they are talking about smoking weed and downloading stuff from The Pirate Bay on Facebook and Gmail—and that is hopefully correct. But the revelation that PRISM exists should really make everyone, American, Canadian, or otherwise, realize the amount of data we have entrusted into US corporations that are being wholly wiretapped is maybe a misguided way to operate in a digital society. To anyone who thinks that this type of surveillance can only be a good thing, as in it will prevent future terrorist attacks or help the government squash bad guys, the stories of Bradley Manning, journalist and former Anonymous member Barrett Brown who is facing 100 years in prison in connection to analyzing leaked emails from the security company Stratfor, and now Edward Snowden need to be taken into consideration.
While Bradley can be arguably condemned for releasing confidential information recklessly, Barrett Brown may have got too involved with Anonymous for his own good, and Edward Snowden is now being painted as a potential Chinese spy, what these three young men all have in common is their willingness to risk their lives for the greater good of free information. The three of them now face enormous prison sentences for leaking secret documents in the interest of transparency—and that is now the justice system we all live under.
If that does not bother you, and you don’t think it’s alarming that Edward Snowden, a man living in Hawaii making $200,000 a year, threw his whole life away to simply leak a PowerPoint document about PRISM’s capabilities to the Guardian so the world could be more aware about the condition of America’s surveillance state—then okay. Keep on keeping on. But this news indicates that the iceberg goes much, much deeper than what we already know. The information that has leaked about PRISM is very much topline and does not get into the nitty gritty of the capabilities this system has. And yet, even the most general information was dangerous enough that Edward Snowden has gone into hiding, while abandoning his family to potentially face the consequences for his actions in America.
Using PRISM, can an intelligence analyst simply type an email address into the program and gain instant access to that user’s inbox? It certainly seems that way. Edward Snowden told the Guardian he could spy on the President if he had a personal email address for him. Snowden worked at Booz Allen for less than three months and already had a massive amount of access into the surveillance network. For such a low-level employee, what he learned at Booz Allen is now a matter of great international importance.
Then there’s the matter of storage space—obviously all of this data needs to be recorded somewhere. News broke last year that the NSA built the United States’ largest data centre in Utah that stores intercepted data taken from programs like PRISM. It makes one wonder if the limits we have on our broadband internet plans and cell phone data has more to do with the storage limitations of centres like the NSA’s in Utah than it does anything else. If everyone had unlimited internet plans, the NSA would need a much bigger data centre that might be outside of their conceivable storage capabilities. The added overage charges that providers can collect from bandwidth hogs might just be a bonus.
So even though it appears that the strength of PRISM affects Canadian telecommunications, the Canadian government is doing their part to increase digital surveillance as well. The Globe and Mail published raw documents on Monday that detail a plan by the Harper government to extend the capabilities for intercepted private communications online. Plus, given that Stephen Harper was in Peru last month to chat with the United States and a coalition of other countries (none from Europe) to discuss a new plan to control the internet—it’s clear that Canada intends to follow the leader when it comes to a clamping down on internet freedom.
All of this should be of the utmost concern to anyone who takes pride in a free internet and is worried about it being recklessly monitored by the US government and their private intelligence contractors. While law-abiding individuals will be able to live without any real fear of imprisonment under this new cyberstate, the danger to whistleblowers in this climate is a troublesome conflict, and at the very least, we should all be aware of who is listening to us and why.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire