PRISM, NSA & Journalism

The stories circulating about the US government's surveillance program, PRISM, and the cooperation of Verizon and the 9 tech giants, has generated a firestorm of protest. The media, in a frantic effort to acquire online clicks, has engaged in wildly inaccurate stories deliberately designed to sacrifice truth on the altar of sensationalism. Truth doesn't generate clicks. Sensationalism does. None other than the Washington Post is leading the charge into deliberate non-truth. When their inaccuracies were pointed out, they didn't retract the stories. They redacted them to change just enough specific words that what is left can't be proven to be inaccurate, even though they know there is not a shred of evidence that it IS accurate.

However, the recent discussion surrounding PRISM pretty much misses the point. Since the 1970's the National Security Agency (NSA) has been tapping into trans-oceanic cables to eavesdrop on foreigners. That's one of its primary missions. After 9/11 President George W. Bush authorized NSA to collect all the data passing through the cables and Internet backbone, including data from US citizens. They archive all data, putting anything belonging to an American into a restricted area of the computer where it can only be accessed if they become relevant to a national security investigation. There's an Associated Press story that does a good job of describing the process.

There have been reports as early as 2005 that NSA is archiving everything passing through the Internet backbone as well as the trans-oceanic cables, giving them access to phone calls, email, chat sessions, bank transactions and lots more. There is nothing new here.

In 2007 the government augmented NSA's powers by allowing it to get secret court orders requiring US tech companies to provide information on ongoing national security investigations. It is the disclosure of PRISM that has generated the firestorm of protests over the past couple of weeks starting June 5, 2013.

But one has to wonder, if NSA already has the entire contents of the Internet backbone archived, why do they need the cooperation of tech companies to provide information they already have? It's because having a gigantic stream of information with totally unrelated information following more unrelated content isn't too useful. The computing power to categorize all that information is beyond the most powerful computers available today. So, when NSA finds content in a block of data they find alarming, they start tracing from whom it was sent and to whom it was directed. They might find a couple of related items in near-time in the archives, but it would take years to sift out a conversation spanning months or years. This is why they requested Verizon's "metadata" of all phone records. Metadata is data about data, or in this case just the records of who called whom, not the content of the calls themselves. NSA already has the phone calls archived. Verizon was a short-cut to organize the data they already had.

That's also when NSA resorts to a court order to acquire the entire contents of a mailbox that has received one of these alarming messages. Then they sift through those messages looking for who else might be involved in the plot and acquire those messages. Having the ability to get the pre-sorted data makes it much easier for NSA, but it provides nothing they don't already have -- other than formatting.

The issue here isn't PRISM. By itself it is a gnat. The issue is NSA's archiving all communications passing through the US and cables they have access to. That's been going on for decades, and all of us knew it (or at least the information was readily available if we chose to be ignorant). There is a legitimate debate over whether what NSA is doing should be allowed. Let's debate that. But wringing our hands over PRISM and the role of US tech companies in the monitoring of our conversations is beyond silly. In a relatively few years NSA will have computers powerful enough to reorder the data into meaningful formats themselves. If the protests shut down PRISM and do nothing about what's already in NSA's archives and their ongoing activities acquiring more, it will have accomplished little or nothing. The sensational aspects of the disclosure of PRISM have completely masked the real issue.

One of the aspects that has made the reporting more sensational is the name, PRISM. If the government had called it EGGPLANT, it would have been much less widely reported. But people want to work on sexy-sounding projects, so government employees come up with attractive names. This, of course, increases the "news value" when the program can be characterized as doing something wrong. Unfortunately, we have entered an age when image is everything and truth is nothing. This is exacerbated by having a public trained for a 140 character attention span.

The public, of course, has never really had an attention span long enough to analyze complicated issues. But we used to have real journalists who were entrusted as proxies for the job. Now, there are very few journalists who are allowed the time to analyze issues. Because revenues are way down at traditional news media, those left behind are performing the work of dozens. And as advertising revenue on websites replaces print, radio and TV advertising revenues, formerly reputable journalistic outlets, like the Washington Post, have succumbed to the sensationalize or perish philosophy.

We know we can't rely on the Internet or traditional media for careful analysis. So, where do we turn? Democracy cannot survive without a fourth estate. With traditional journalism having abdicated the role, our society needs to find a functioning replacement, something that worships on the altar of truth. But truthfully, it's difficult to see where it might come from.

[Editor's note: more than 4 years ago, I wrote a piece with a similar take on journalism, but on a completely different topic -- the cause of the economic recession.]

June 15, 2013