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Secret to Prism program: Even bigger data seizure

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Posted June 17, 2013
In this June 10, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Wondering what the U.S. government might know about your phone calls and online life? And whether all of this really helps find terrorists? Good luck finding solid answers. Americans trying to wrap their minds around two giant surveillance programs are confronted with a mishmash of leaks, changing claims and secrecy. Congress members complain their constituents are baffled _ and many lawmakers admit they are, too. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

In this June 10, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Wondering what the U.S. government might know about your phone calls and online life? And whether all of this really helps find terrorists? Good luck finding solid answers. Americans trying to wrap their minds around two giant surveillance programs are confronted with a mishmash of leaks, changing claims and secrecy. Congress members complain their constituents are baffled _ and many lawmakers admit they are, too. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

In the months and early years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FBI agents began showing up at Microsoft Corp. more frequently than before, armed with court orders demanding information on customers.

Around the world, government spies and eavesdroppers were tracking the email and Internet addresses used by suspected terrorists. Often, those trails led to the world’s largest software company and, at the time, largest email provider.

The agents wanted email archives, account information, practically everything, and quickly. Engineers compiled the data, sometimes by hand, and delivered it to the government.

Often there was no easy way to tell if the information belonged to foreigners or Americans. So much data was changing hands that one former Microsoft employee recalls that the engineers were anxious about whether the company should cooperate.

Inside Microsoft, some called it “Hoovering”—not after the vacuum cleaner, but after J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director, who gathered dirt on countless Americans.

This frenetic, manual process was the forerunner to Prism, the recently revealed highly classified National Security Agency program that seizes records from Internet companies. As laws changed and technology improved, the government and industry moved toward a streamlined, electronic process, which required less time from the companies and provided the government data in a more standard format.

The revelation of Prism this month by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers has touched off the latest round in a decade-long debate over what limits to impose on government eavesdropping, which the Obama administration says is essential to keep the U.S. safe.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.

Read more at: Phys.org

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