I've not commented on NSA's PRISM program up to this point because, as a former intelligence officer and senior IT professional, I recognize there are many layers to it, and I wanted to address them as cogently and accurately as possible.
Most Americans understand and accept that the interception and analysis of foreign communications is essential to developing effective intelligence. This is an historical and necessary function in the intelligence cycle.
The prevalence of the Internet, however, is a game changer, because most communications, even from other countries, travel through U.S.-based servers.
Intelligence agencies, therefore, require permission from the U.S. owners of these assets to monitor them. Intelligence agencies have to demonstrate that a particular thread of communications from a foreign source warrants attention, and so they make their case to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, mirroring the act of domestic law enforcement agencies securing a search warrant. Once they have this warrant, the companies are lawfully obligated to provide them access.
There are three key points I want to leave with you as takeaways.
The first is that these companies would have to grant permission for the U.S. government to access their servers. Incidentally, one company which stands out for its absence from the list of cooperating firms is Twitter. Otherwise, I question the veracity of those companies that deny knowledge of the program. If they are telling the truth, then they're saying they had no idea what they were signing up for when the government approached them, and I have a hard time with that assumption.
The second point is that the president seeks to assure us by proclaiming no one's reading our emails or listening to our phone calls and, technically, he may be correct. They don't have to, however, to learn what they need to know about their targets.
Metadata, which is roughly "data about data", provides sufficient information about the properties of a telephone record, document or image - the author of a document and when that document was created or modified, for example - for agencies to mine useful information about a potential suspect. Metadata is used to refine search results on our personal computers and online, retailers like Amazon.com use metadata to suggest purchases according to your buying patterns, and Facebook uses metadata to send you targeted ads and friend suggestions. Institutions can learn a great deal about a person without ever opening their files or listening in on their conversations.
The third and final point is this; this program is legal under the auspices of the Foreign Information Surveillance Act, and has been a matter of public record, if not broad public knowledge, since 2007. Both parties in Congress were aware of the program and passed it - for the record, the Congress at the time was under Democratic Party control, and the president was a Republican - and both parties, even under a divided Congress and a president who's a Democrat, continue to defend it today.
As sovereign citizens we need to be honest with ourselves and ask some hard questions.
If they are monitoring foreign communications only, if they must get permission from the secret court before doing so, and if they must report their activities to Congress, are not the proper oversight mechanisms in place to prevent abuse of the program? How does this differ from past intelligence collection operations conducted against foreign nationals throughout history, and which we have condoned?
Since this program has been a matter of public record since 2007, why the outrage now? Are our antenna so attuned to scandal these days that we are reacting to something that sounds illegal, even though it isn't?
Is this issue, ultimately, a matter of trust, or the lack thereof? In the wake of the IRS's abuse of the public trust, are we now unwilling to believe that the Intelligence Community is confining its surveillance to foreign nationals suspected of terrorist ties? Or are we simply unwilling to believe the government can be trusted to do the right thing with that much power?
If it's the latter, then that opens up an entirely new debate about the role of government and how we've arrived at this point to begin with.
If we're honest with ourselves, both political parties have issues for which they they are willing to extend power to the government, and others where they want government to steer clear.
Government isn't that easily compartmentalized, however, and power, once given, is nearly impossible to take back. Government has a clearly defined role, yet that role is limited because it requires the use of force to execute, and force is the only tool government has to ensure compliance. As Abraham Maslow wrote in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This “law of the instrument,” as philosopher Abraham Kaplan called it in 1964, is highly applicable to the nature of government. But that's a discussion for another day.