Everything you need to know about PRISM

The what

What the hell is PRISM? PRISM is a tool used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to collect private electronic data belonging to users of major internet services like Gmail, Facebook, Outlook, and others. It’s the latest evolution of the US government’s post-9/11 electronic surveillance efforts, which began under President Bush with the Patriot Act, and expanded to include the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) enacted in 2006 and 2007.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about how PRISM works, but the basic idea is that it allows the NSA to request data on specific people from major technology companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and others. The US government insists that it is only allowed to collect data when given permission by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
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Why is PRISM a big deal?

Classified presentation slides detailing aspects of PRISM were leaked by a former NSA contractor. On June 6th, The Guardian and The Washington Post published reports based on the leaked slides, which state that the NSA has “direct access” to the servers of Google, Facebook, and others. In the days since the leak, the implicated companies have vehemently denied knowledge of and participation in PRISM, and have rejected allegations that the US government is able to directly tap into their users' data.
Both the companies and the government insist that data is only collected with court approval and for specific targets. As The Washington Post reported, PRISM is said to merely be a streamlined system — varying between companies — that allows them to expedite court-approved data collection requests. Because there are few technical details about how PRISM operates, and because of the fact that the FISA court operates in secret, critics are concerned about the extent of the program and whether it violates the constitutional rights of US citizens.

How was PRISM created?

As The Washington Post reported, The Protect America Act of 2007 led to the creation of a secret NSA program called US-984XN — also known as PRISM. The program is said to be a streamlined version of the same surveillance practices that the US was conducting in the years following 9/11, under President George W. Bush’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”
The Protect America Act allows the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to explain in a classified document how the US will collect intelligence on foreigners overseas each year, but does not require specific targets or places to be named. As the Post reports, once the plan is approved by a federal judge in a secret order, the NSA can require companies like Google and Facebook to send data to the government, as long as the requests meet the classified plan's criteria.
 
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By T.C. Sottek and Josh Kopstein
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