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PRISM, the Other Beast: What is It?

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

The other monster has reared its ugly head, and the (top, top) secret is out: PRISM is a real thing. Just as you thought you may have been inundated with too much news about the National Security Agency (NSA) and Verizon scandal, The Washington Post and The Guardian both decided to drop a second bomb on us late last week, revealing information from a leaked Powerpoint slide presentation. This one doesn't involve metadata from phone records, but content collected from Internet giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and other sites that you likely use on a daily basis.

Suddenly, the Verizon debacle looks like small(er) potatoes.

But, what is there to know about PRISM, exactly? Not only is there a wealth of information out there, but there are layers and layers of accusations and denials to go with it. News updates on this matter happen every second. Now, even a whistleblower has been confirmed. Here are some basics that break it down:

Who and what?

It may sound contrived, but PRISM is the name of a secret government program that extracts private information collected from a total of 9 known sites: Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, Yahoo!, and AOL. It was initially reported that the NSA and the FBI have direct access to the central servers on these huge sites.

This has been now been disputed, by the government and by the companies themselves. Direct access would have lead to the search of content, video and chat logs, emails, login data, etc. The government now says there are inaccuracies in both the Post and Guardian stories, writes The Next Web.

When and why?

Essentially, PRISM was birthed out of the Protect America Act of 2007, an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Act essentially removed the warrant requirement to surveil government intelligence targets that were believed to be the suspects of foreign terrorism. According to the documents leaked to The Guardian, however, FISA had some "shortcomings" in that it wasn't making use of its "home-field advantage" referring to the U.S. housing many of the world's Internet giants. Thus, PRISM came to be.

Now what?

President Barack Obama insists that the Internet monitoring is reserved for those outside the United States and meant for keeping Americans safe. There are also adamant reports from all of the named sites that strongly deny handing over "direct access" to the servers.

However, this does not also completely shut out the prospect of some information being available, or rather them somehow passively handing over access. Nor does this serve as anything more than just a wary, meager kind of comfort to those of us living in the U.S. (Not to mention the other issue -- how should non-U.S. folks feel about the fact that they are susceptible to this?)

While the news has settled and addendum after addendum is being rolled out to further clarify the bombshell of a situation, the program still appears to be legal for the most part. The bottom line is that the program exists, and it likely won't be shut down anytime soon, if at all, unfortunately.

June 10, 2013 Editor's Note: This post had been updated to better clarify that it is at this time, not clear if the government agencies involved have "direct access" to content on the servers of the Internet companies listed. All of the news sources linked to in this post have allowed their stories remain up and unchanged at this time. However, please note this story, and the related assertions and denials, are evolving constantly. For breaking news, see our sister company, Reuters.

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