Why Are We So Shocked About PRISM?

Ever since The Guardian started revealing details of secret internet surveillance against private citizens undertaken by US government agencies – (such as the NSA) – which ultimately lead to the whistleblower Edward Snowden outing himself as their source, there has been international outcry as to the nature of these activities.

As there should be.

Many constitutions around the world have specific provisions for privacy and free speech, and such surveillance activities arguably and directly infringe against these principles.

Most of this surveillance happens without warrants, or at very least, without warrants anyone knows about.

In the United States, these warrants come from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Exactly how many “foreign” – (as opposed to “domestic”) – surveillance operations fall under this structure seems to be one of the biggest questions at the moment.

What really frustrates me is that people only show this level of outrage when high profile stories – (like that of Edward Snowden) – come to light, and hit the mainstream media.

It frustrates me because this kind of activity has been going on for decades. Ever heard of ECHELON?

Quoting directly from its Wikipedia entry:

“ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to by a number of abbreviations, including AUSCANNZUKUS and Five Eyes). It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications.”

Despite what some would argue were benign beginnings – (for the record, I don’t hold that view) – there is plenty of plausible suggestion that ECHELON has been used for purposes other than military and/or diplomatic purposes:

“Intelligence monitoring of citizens, and their communications, in the area covered by the AUSCANNZUKUS security agreement has caused concern. British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes. Examples alleged by the journalists include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enercon and the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie. An article in the US newspaper Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that European aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the US National Security Agency reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.”

ECHELON is apparently implemented through a network of monitoring stations throughout the world, including Australia’s Pine Gap. Of course, no official admission of the existence of ECHELON has ever been forthcoming.

Then there is the so-called “Room 641A Case”, where it is claimed that the NSA has had equipment installed to directly tap internet traffic from deep within AT&T’s network facilities:

“Room 641A is located in the SBC Communications building at 611 Folsom Street, San Francisco, three floors of which were occupied by AT&T before SBC purchased AT&T. The room was referred to in internal AT&T documents as the SG3 [Study Group 3] Secure Room. It is fed by fiber optic lines from beam splitters installed in fiber optic trunks carrying Internet backbone traffic and, as analyzed by J. Scott Marcus, a former CTO for GTE and a former adviser to the FCC, who has access to all Internet traffic that passes through the building, and therefore “the capability to enable surveillance and analysis of internet content on a massive scale, including both overseas and purely domestic traffic.” Former director of the NSA’s World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, William Binney, has estimated that 10 to 20 such facilities have been installed throughout the United States.”

It may in fact be these 10 to 20 “641A-type” facilities that Edward Snowden indirectly speaks of as the enablers of the PRISM surveillance system he has lifted the lid upon.

These facilities appear to have been in place since at least 2003.

Similar activities have been underway since the height of the Cold War, including the snooping of undersea communications systems:

“One of the most successful of these missions, code-named Ivy Bells, was the tapping of a vital Soviet undersea communications cable. The mission was carried out by USS HALIBUT, which crept into the Sea of Okhotsk, the bay separating the Kamchatka Peninsula from the Soviet mainland. Divers descended to the sea floor 400 feet below the surface to install a recording pod.”

The intelligence community has had the will and the means to conduct this kind of surveillance for many years. As communications technology has evolved, so to have their snooping methods.

People would probably be most naive to think that snooping on private citizens with these systems is a new phenomenon.

In Australia, the Greens are already seeking to enact legislation to eliminate warrantless use of these systems on Australian citizens.

We shouldn’t be so shocked about PRISM, just because it makes good news copy at the moment – it’s been happening for years.

It’s all well and good to be shocked about PRISM; if you are, be more shocked at just how long this has been going on for. We are right to be outraged right now – but we should maintain that rage.

Pressure our politicians.

Particularly when this all disappears from the front pages of our newspapers in coming weeks – because it will, yet it will all still be happening.

The evolving news cycle won’t change it – at all.