PRISM, Tempora and the case of Edward Snowden

Byron Clark, Fightback.

The past few years have seen the US led “war on terror” morph from a bloody ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan to something resembling a Hollywood techno-thriller. Three years after soldier Bradley Manning was arrested for leaking an enormous trove of classified documents via Wikileaks, another whistle-blower has revealed that American and British intelligence agencies have been engaged in large scale surveillance programmes.

Edward Snowden was a technical contractor for the American National Security Administration (NSA) before he felt he could not continue the work he was doing in good conscience. After taking leave from his employment and flying for Hawai’i to Hong Kong, he revealed details of the PRISM and Tempora programmes “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The leaked information was published by The Guardian and the Washington Post.

The NSA programme PRISM began in 2007 with the passing of the Protect America Act, which removed the requirement for a warrant when collecting data on foreign intelligence targets “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States, and made it legal to collect data on American citizens communicating with people outside the US who were under investigation.

The operation collected metadata, meaning data such as the time an email was sent, who it was to and from, as well as the file size of the email, but not the actual contents of the message. This data was collected from a number of different communications technologies facilitated by internet services that are household names, such as Google, Facebook and Skype, although these companies were not knowingly complicit in the programme.

Snowden has described aspects of the data collection as “dangerous” and “criminal” under US law, but has also pointed out that focusing on the illegal surveillance of Americans is “a distraction from the power and danger of this system.” Adding that “Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%.”

A similar programme in the UK, Tempora, has been in operating since 2011 and shared information with the NSA. The data collected by Tempora is of a much greater scope than the data collected by PRISM, it includes recordings of telephone calls, the content of email messages, Facebook entries and the peoples personal internet use history. Tempora was orchestrated by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) who Snowden has described as “worse than the US”. “Tempora is the first ‘I save everything’ approach (‘full take’) in the intelligence world. It sucks in all data, no matter what it is, and which rights are violated by it”

While PRISM surveillance required the already loose criteria of suspicion, Tempora made no distinction between innocent people or targeted suspects when gathering data. CGHQ lawyers said it would be impossible to list the total number of people targeted because “this would be an infinite list which we couldn’t manage”.

While any data passing though the UK or US (which most internet communications do) could have been spied on, regardless of what country it originated from, the intelligence agencies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand- via the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) facility at Waihopai near Blenheim – have been sharing information with the NSA. This revelation has fuelled opposition to a bill currently going through parliament that would give more powers to the GCSB.

On June 14, US federal prosecutors filed a sealed complaint, which was made public on June 21, charging Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information, and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person; the latter two allegations are under the Espionage Act.

Unable to return to the United States Snowden has been offered asylum by a number of South American nations. When the Obama administration threatened to revoke a trade agreement if the country granted Snowden asylum, Ecuador cancelled the pact themselves. In addition the nation’s Communications Secretary, Fernando Alvarado, announced US$23 million in Ecuadoran aid to the US to provide “human rights training to combat torture, illegal executions and attacks on people’s privacy.”

Snowden is also popular in his home country- with the people if not with the government- a national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed a majority (55%) of those polled supported Snowden as a “whistle blower” versus only 34% who saw his as a “traitor”. On July Fourth, the day the USA celebrates independence, protests against the PRISM program and in support of Snowden took place in major US cities around the theme of “Restore the Fourth” a reference to the fourth amendment to the constitution, which provided protection from unreasonable searches and seizure.

At the time of writing, Snowden has not accepted (at least not publically) an offer of asylum, claiming US officials are waging a campaign to prevent him from doing so. When Snowden was suspected to be on board the presidential jet carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales the plane was grounded in Austria when other European countries refused to allow the plane in their airspace.

“The scale of threatening behaviour is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign president’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee.”

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