PRISM: Privacy Revoked In Security Measure


LAST APRIL, Facebook acquired Instagram, the popular online photo sharing site, for about $1 billion in cash and stock. Eight months later, Instagram quietly tweaked its Terms of Service, announcing that as of January 16, 2013, it could sell any photo contained on its site without either notification or compensation. In effect, Instagram was claiming ownership of anything posted on its servers—an ominous sign, given the enormous reach of its new parent company. If Instagram could peddle users’ pictures, then Facebook—an outfit notoriously fickle with its own privacy policy—could do that, too.

Word of this sneaky tweak spread quickly through cyberspace, led by that renowned civil rights advocate, Kim Kardashian. Instagram users responded by canceling their accounts in droves, deleting God knows how many hip, retro-filtered pictures. Faced with so many angry users jumping ship, the company was forced to retract the change.

What happened last spring is that 30 million individuals [1. Per Wikipedia, Instagram had that many users in April, 2012] learned that an institution it trusted with its sensitive information was not worthy of that trust. Enough of those individuals raised enough of a stink that a change was made. All that fuss for a site that converts regular photographs into square, Polaroid-style images.

The point here is not to poke fun at Kim Kardashian, who was on the right side of this fight, or Instagram users, who post some of my favorite Facebook feed images, but to ask why the revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program have not provoked similar outrage.


Nixon’s Security Apparatus


When The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story about the secret NSA mass surveillance program, courtesy of Edward Snowden, one of the government’s erstwhile spies, it had the makings of the sort of scandal that ruins presidencies. PRISM was Watergate, it seemed, but bigger, and with a much broader reach. Heads surely would roll.

“I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me,” Snowden told The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald a month ago. “I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing.”

This has not really come to pass. The Snowden story has devolved into hacks questioning the news judgment of real journalists, cloak-and-dagger reports of the ex-Booz Allen employee eluding a phalanx of hapless correspondents at a Moscow airport, Ecuadorian extradition treaties, and heartfelt proclamations on the hotness of his girlfriend. [2. When you start typing “Edward Snowden” into Google, the first suggestion is “Edward Snowden girlfriend”] The potetial elevation of Greenwald from relatively obscure civil liberties columnist to this generation’s Bob Woodward is a good thing, especially considering that the actual Bob Woodward turned his back on true investigative journalism decades ago. But the rest of it is noise. Colorful copy, sure, but noise.



Established by Richard Nixon, who knew a thing or two about recording private conversations, the NSA has become the monster Frank Church warned it would become. Via its new system, codenamed EvilOlive, it has processed more than a trillion records. They can read every email and text we send, log every telephone conversation we have, track every website we visit. They know what music we like, what apps we use, what movies are on our Netflix queue, what tastes we have in porn.

If what Snowden alleges is true—and there’s no reason to think otherwise, considering how much he gave up in order to disclose the information he disclosed [3. The ostensible reason for all those articles about his girlfriend]—they can get this information about anyone of interest, not just a terrorist. They can, they do, and they will.

This is something that should unite freedom-loving Americans near-unanimously in protest, and yet the response has been disappointingly tepid. Are we waiting for Kardashian to come back from maternity leave to lead the charge? Can it really be that we just don’t care about this that much?



In his defense of PRISM, President Obama said, “In the abstract, you can complain about ‘Big Brother’ and how this is a potential program run amok. But when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

I’ll refrain from invoking George Orwell, then, or suggesting that this is (yet another) program with the potential to run amok, although I should, and it is. But I will point out a few details that speak to the Obama Administration’s fast-and-loose application of the law.

At my former place of employ, The Associated Press, phone records were secretly (and illegally) obtained by the so-called Department of Justice this past spring. “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. “These records…disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

James Rosen of Fox News faced the same problem—the FBI was investigating him, hoping to find his confidential source. Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King (R-New York) has (idiotically) called for Greenwald to be prosecuted for publishing the Snowden story.

Journalists of this kind, I should add, are absolutely essential to a functioning democracy. The media gets a bum rap, but they are the canaries in our great American coalmine. They should be protected by us at all costs.

This past week, the Monterey County Herald reported that the Army—the entire freakin’ Army—cannot access the website of The Guardian.

Gordon Van Vleet, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command, or NETCOM, said in an email the Army is filtering “some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks.”

He wrote it is routine for the Department of Defense to take preventative “network hygiene” measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

“We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security,” he wrote, “however, there are strict policies and directives in place regarding protecting and handling classified information.”

In a later phone call, Van Vleet said the filter of classified information on public websites was “Armywide” and did not originate at the Presidio.

Blatant censorship! What a way to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Obama’s reasons for doing all this are simple: he goes after leakers. Hard. But then, he has a precedent. Abraham Lincoln rounded up and arrested “irresponsible” newspaper editors and reporters for the same reason—compromising national security—during the Civil War. What worked then works now.

Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus. Is that what’s next? Snowden clearly thinks so, or he wouldn’t still be stuck at the airport.



The rationale for the Instagram policy shift was impossible to spin as anything other than pure, unfiltered greed. The change was a trial balloon, and if they got it to fly at Instagram, Facebook would probably have imposed it as well. Unless you were in Mark Zuckerberg’s immediate family, there was nothing to like about the new Terms of Service.

PRISM, by contrast, has been justified by President Obama and others in government as essential to the “War on Terror.” It’s necessary to ensure our security, insofar as security can ever be ensured. “They may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism,” the President said, using the same aw-shucks language his predecessor was known for. And aptly so. These are Bush/Cheney talking points, after all, spouted now by a Democratic administration, and therefore taken at face value by many Americans.

“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security,” the President remarked, “and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Well, sure. But is it really necessary to process a trillion documents on countless American citizens to catch a handful of legitimate terrorist threats? There is erring on the side of security, and then there is the police state.

Another key to our apparent acceptance of mass surveillance is that most of us don’t feel its effects in any measurable way. Just as we didn’t really give a crap about the Iraqis tortured at Abu Ghraib—they were terrorists, after all; they had it coming—we can’t get worked up about the idea of some faceless G-man eavesdropping on our conversations with Mom, or reading our GMail chats with Pam from Accounting.

A common reaction: “Let them listen to my calls. I’m not a terrorist. I have nothing to hide.” This is surely true, today. Tomorrow, the ever-expanding definition of terrorist may expand sufficiently to include me, and you, and all voices of dissent, real or imagined.

The other thing working in Obama’s favor is the sheer scale and scope of the operation. PRISM is so egregiously ambitious, it’s hard to wrap your head around. It’s bigger than the Whiskey Ring, and it out-Teapot Domes Teapot Dome. Kind of like how Dick Cheney went from being the CEO of Halliburton to the VP who convinced his boss to invade Iraq under false pretenses, killing God knows how many people, so that all those fat government contracts that didn’t exist before the invasion could be given to…wait for it…Halliburton. It’s that audacious, the sort of brazen corruption that happens in banana republics and East African dictatorships but not in the Land of the Free. How can you defeat something that enormous and all-powerful? It’s like fighting the Borg. Resistance is, or at least feels, futile.



We knew they were up our ass—the existence of PRISM has been public knowledge since 2006—but we didn’t know they were that far up our ass. Congress did, though. They were complicit in this mass erosion of our privacy.

“The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed,” Obama said.

And: “These are programs that have been authored by large bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.”

And, in an almost Miltonic turn of phrase: “Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed.”



Richard Nixon resigned from office rather than face the indignity of being removed via impeachment. The crime he was accused of, and later pardoned for by his hand-picked successor Gerald Ford, was obstruction of justice.

He lied about Watergate. He lied about being in the know about the attempt to bug the headquarters of a rival party whose candidate for president he would crush in the Electoral College that year by 520-17.

His “dirty tricks” were both sleazy and illegal—Dick Nixon was, in the final analysis, a crook—but they affected a few dozen individuals, and their impact on the election was negligible. When we consider the number of Americans affected by the NSA surveillance, and how both Obama and the NSA director have repeatedly lied about its parameters, how is PRISMgate less of a big deal than Watergate?

For four plus years, Republicans have been inventing reasons to get Obama. And from ACORN to Jeremiah Wright, and birth certificates to rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati, they’ve all been hollow. Now they’ve been presented with a bona fide, honest-to-goodness scandal…and all you hear from that side of the aisle are the cicadas. Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Orly Taitz—are you out there? This is the moment you’ve been waiting for! Seize the day!

But no. That would make Republicans seem soft on terror.



Edward Snowden is either going to be remembered as a pioneer of privacy rights or another Winston Smith crushed by his invasive and omnipotent government. Which way it plays out depends entirely on how much stink We the People make. That the President blithely alluded to Nineteen Eighty-Four at a press conference does not change the fact that Big Brother is watching us.

“In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake,” Snowden wrote yesterday, his first public statement in over a week. “We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.”

We have been informed, but we are not angry. But we should be. If you want a picture of the future of an America that accepts mass surveillance as a fact of life, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. And if that isn’t enough to rouse your ire, pretend the picture is an Instagram.


I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.


About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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12 Responses to PRISM: Privacy Revoked In Security Measure

  1. David says:

    Great commentary, Greg. Very well said. This whole thing has gotten me really pissed off – not just at the government but at the near voluntary ignorance of people. I think it’s a defense mechanism of sorts. Or maybe the governments of the world just have us too tied up to think straight.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks, David. I think it’s just so big, and both parties are so obviously in favor of it, it’s unstoppable, or seems that way.

  2. Elizabeth Collins says:

    I have to say that I think Snowden is an ass for doing this. It was known way before this what was going on; this is not a Dictator Obama thing (but Obama haters would have everyone believe otherwise). Yes, I can see the slippery slope ahead, but I don’t begrudge the government any sifting of my very boring meta-data. If sifting through tons of meta-data helps catch terrorists, then fine by me. Snowden took a metaphorical bullet for a silly reason. Perhaps his time stuck in the Moscow airport will, however, be punishment enough. I think he’s a troublemaker, stirring the pot of faux outrage. Sure, this is all “troubling,” but in the greater scheme of things, I think it’s petty stuff. Not that your article is petty–just that I don’t believe Snowden is any sort of hero.

    • The Editors says:

      I haven’t heard much anti-Obama about this at all. Both parties seem to be fine with it. And while PRISM was known, the scope and scale was not known until these disclosures. This in a vacuum would be unsettling enough. Mass surveillance plus erosion of FCC/media ownership plus drones plus indefinite detention without trial plus torture…that’s a recipe for disaster, in the wrong hands. Obama’s gone in three years. The next president might not be so nice…and THAT is the real danger, as I see it.

      Thanks for reading and leaving the comment!

      • Elizabeth Collins says:

        True—I understand the possible future implications (like thoughtcrime), but with Congress just passing these laws and rubber-stamping the surveillance, we don’t have much hope to change anything, in my opinion. Very depressing.

        • The Editors says:

          That was Frank Church’s point…this is pulled from a NYT article, which Greenwald pulled in his column:

          “‘That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.’

          “He added that if a dictator ever took over, the NSA ‘could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.'”

  3. Thank you for writing this, Greg! I agree that the right to privacy is essential to maintaining freedom. Anyone who thinks they have “nothing to hide” isn’t aware of all of things that can *become* indicators of potentially being a so-called “Domestic terrorist.” Christians, for example. Gun owners. People who believe in the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech. The list is growing. Eventually people will be put in jail for “thought crimes” under the guise of conspiracy.

    Obama is right, you can’t have 100% security and 100% privacy. So give me 100% privacy and I’ll leave security a few percentage points behind. Because zero percent privacy and 100% security doesn’t leave us safe at all.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks, Shoshanna. Totally and completely agree with you. I’d rather err on the side of privacy.

      What’s interesting is that the forces that want us to open up more and more are themselves secretive. Hoover, for one. Cheney, for another…I just read the first chapter of ANGLER, about his vice presidency…he subjected all the veep candidates to an intensely invasive interview process, but didn’t do the same for himself. He preferred the shadows, as any demon would.

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