WASHINGTON (AP) — Wait, there’s more?
Yes, this was the week that America’s intelligence secrets spilled out: Classified court orders. Top secret Power Point slides. Something called PRISM.
It’s pretty important stuff, if you can make sense of it.
Here’s what you need to know.
Q: The past two days have been packed with coverage about domestic surveillance. I have no idea what I'm hearing.
A: That’s not a question. So let’s start from the beginning, which in the national security world these days means going back to 9/11.
Shortly after the attacks, Congress hastily approved the USA Patriot Act. That gave the government wide new powers to collect information on Americans. In the first few years, news coverage focused on how the FBI would use these new powers to seize phone, bank, library records and more.
Separate from the Patriot Act, though, President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct a highly classified wiretapping program. Normally, the government needs a warrant to spy on Americans but Bush allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, read their emails and collect their phone records — all without warrants.
In 2005, The New York Times revealed the existence of that program. Amid the furor, the rules changed. The wiretapping operation and the collection of phone records could continue, but a judge had to sign off on them.
The scope of those programs was never fully known. But the government assured people that the spying was narrow and kept them safe. Congress voted to keep the authority
Then this week arrived.
The Guardian newspaper published a classified court document from April authorizing the government to seize all of Verizon’s phone records on a daily basis — a trove of millions of numbers. The government didn’t eavesdrop on anyone (under this court order, at least) but it received all outgoing and incoming numbers for every call, plus the unique electronic fingerprints that identify cellphones.
The court document showed that, now that warrantless surveillance was off the table, the government was using its Patriot Act authority to seize the phone records of American citizens.
A program that the government said was narrow was suddenly revealed as vast. Under Bush and then President Barack Obama, the National Security Agency has built a colossal database of American phone calls.
Q: That’s a lot to digest. Is that it?
A: Nope. A day after the court document surfaced, the Guardian and Washington Post published stories and secret Power Point slides revealing another classified spying program. Unlike the effort to collect phone records, this one hadn’t even been hinted about publicly beforehand.
This program, code-named PRISM, allowed the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL.
Like the phone-records program, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. Unlike that program, however, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more.
Q: How does that work?
A: You’re going to hear a lot about PRISM and, when you do, it’s important to remember two things:
First, it’s no less than astonishing that reporters obtained such highly classified, detailed documents about an ongoing intelligence-gathering program.
Second, for all the incredible details, we still know relatively little about the program. The Power Point slides appear to be from an internal NSA presentation explaining the value of PRISM to analysts. So they don’t get very technical and they leave a lot unanswered.
Imagine someone trying to understand the way a company works using only the Power Point slides from the most recent staff meeting. That’s what this is.
From the documents, it’s clear that the NSA receives data directly from the Internet companies. The information varies by company but includes emails, your social networking activity, the files you receive, even family photos.
Q: What do they do with that stuff?
A: It’s not clear from the documents but, like with phone records, the NSA appears to be building a database of much of the Internet traffic.
The companies participating in PRISM produce enormous amounts of data every day so storing it would require computing power the likes of which the public has never seen. People who study technology and security believe that’s why the NSA has been building a 1-million square-foot data center near Salt Lake City.Continued...