Prism: A Handy Timeline

Published on June 11th, 2013 by Mario Rodriguez. Filed under Digital Media, Internet Privacy, Online Social Networks, Surveillance
In a recent TEDx talk, I made some points about Facebook privacy and online identity. Specifically, I talked about my research on how college seniors manage their Facebook presence while approaching the job market. I also talked about how, as information becomes increasingly integrated social networks like Facebook may exert a “chilling effect” on free expression, while Facebook itself is an “iceberg” of unseen personal data.
We can fast-forward to last Thursday and revelations regarding the NSA’s Prism program. Here is a handy timeline of what we know:
A leak to The Guardian revealed that a top-secret US court order required Verizon to provide phone records for millions of Americans.
The Guardian broke the story that the NSA had direct access to the servers of major U.S. internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. Beginning in 2007 a program called Prism allowed the NSA to monitor “email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP (Skype, for example) chats, file transfers, social networking details, and more,” and this “opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.” The companies denied any knowledge (Greenwald & MacAskill 2013).
Also according to The Guardian the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA) was also getting information from these sources as provided by a service set up by the NSA.
The Washington Post explained that Prism is court-approved and focuses on foreign communication that flows through U.S. servers (Gellman & Poitras 2013). Prism is the greatest contributor to the President’s Daily brief, and 1 in 7 intelligence reports; the NSA is increasingly reliant on the program. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) tried to warn Americans about a classified “back-door loophole” for content of innocent Americans.
According to Fisa (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), communications intercepted by the NSA must be between foreign nationals, but Prism only requires that intelligence agents are 51% certain that one party engaging in communication is a foreigner on foreign soil. The justification, apparently, for the expanded scope of power is that the majority of the world’s internet traffic flows through the United States.
In an interview with the Fold, The Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Prism, Barton Gellman, explained that his source was willing to take the risk because he believed what the NSA is doing “exceeds all reasonable boundaries of privacy or necessity” and that he sees himself as a whistleblower acting out of conscience.
Loren Thompson at claims that Prism “makes sense.”
Will Mason, one of my advisees at Stetson University, decodes Prism the day the story breaks, trumping his teacher in Masons Musings: “The loopholes in this system are even bigger than the plot holes in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.”
President Obama defended recently revealed surveillance programs as “legal and limited.” He claimed that Congress and the Courts had authorized the programs. Senator Dick Durbin, an ally to the President, disagreed, pointing out that only top Congressional leaders were briefed and that the type of data mining implied “pushes the role of government to the limit” (Baker & Sanger 2013).
Google CEO Larry Page and David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer responded to the accusations of government collusion in a blog post, saying they had never heard of Prism until the story broke, nor had they encountered the type of sweeping legal order that Verizon received (Google Blog 2013). Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded similarly in a Facebook status update.
The New York Times reported that the tech companies begrudgingly cooperated with requests to facilitate government access to the personal information of American citizens. The companies are legally required to share information with the government in response to a legitimate Fisa request, but they are not required to streamline the process. Twitter opted out, while discussions with Google and Facebook apparently involved the creation of a secure portal (in some instances, on company servers) through which the government might be provided with personal data. So, instead of a “back door,” according to the Times these companies were essentially asked to build a virtual safe “and give the government the key” according to anonymous sources briefed on the negotiations. The Times points out that the tech companies could genuinely claim ignorance precisely because those employees whose job it is to comply with Fisa requests are forbidden from discussing details even with other members of their company (Miller 2013). noted that The Washington Post softened the language surrounding some of its earlier claims regarding Prism, for example, by emphasizing that the government draws information from tech companies’ servers (Hall 2013).
29-year-old former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden is revealed as the whistleblower for Prism; he is in Hong Kong, but faces an uncertain future in terms of protection from the Chinese government and extradition
Hunter Assistant Professor of Film and Media Bill Herman’s take on the situation at Shouting Loudly, in which he correctly states: “If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Unlike Bill, I can’t work the NSA into my schedule until next week.
International outcry regarding the NSA’s Prism program; a Pew study shows that 56% of those polled find the NSA’s tracking of phone calls in an effort to curtail terrorism acceptable; 41% did not find it acceptable; a slim majority said the government should not be able to monitor email to curtail terrorism (Hampson 2013).
Montclair Assistant Professor of Media Joel Penney wrote compellingly about how Snowden’s action draws attention to a growing Restore the Fourth Amendment movement on Reddit. In his blog, Viral Politics, he wonders openly if this is the tipping point for privacy to become a major global issue.
Snowden disappears from Hong Kong; Likeable CEO Dave Keppen suggests, “Social media has made the world more transparent in general and that translates into more support for Snowden than you might have seen 5 years ago” (Hampson 2013). This could also bode well for Snowden.
According to the rest of the Prism slides are too controversial to publish (Zetter 2013).
House Speaker Boehner denounced Snowden as a “traitor” (Weisman 2013).

Baker, P. & Sanger, D.E. (2013). “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited.” The New York Times, Friday, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from
Gellman, B. & Poitras, L. (2013). “U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program.” The Washington Post, June 6. Retrieved on 6/10/13 from
Google Blog. (2013). “What the…?” June 7. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from
Greenwald, G. & MacAskill, E. (2013). “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others.” The Guardian, Thursday, June 6. Retrieved on 6/10/13
Hall, J. (2013). “Washington Post Updates, Hedges on Initial PRISM Report.”, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from
Hampson, R. (2013). “Is Snowden a traitor or a public servant?” USA Today, June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from
Miller, C.C. (2013). “Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program.” The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved 6/11/13 from
Thompson, L. (2013). “Why NSA's PRISM Program Makes Sense.”, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from
Washington Post, The. (2013). "NSA leak: Source believes exposure, consequences inevitable." The Fold. Friday, June 7. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from
Weisman, J. (2013). "Boehner Calls Snowden a Traitor." The New York Times, Politics, The Caucus, June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from
Zetter, K. (2013). "The rest of the Prism PowerPoint is so hot, no-one is willing to publish it.", June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from


Mario Rodriguez received his Ph.D. from Annenberg in 2011. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Communication and Media Studies Department at Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida.

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