NSA PRISM Violates Rights, Fails to Protect, Say Readers

Revelations about NSA’s PRISM program and the collection of phone records have sparked debate about data gathering and government surveillance. Network Computing’s readers weigh in.

Andrew Conry-Murray

June 14, 2013

5 Min Read
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Revelations about the extent of NSA data gathering programs has sparked a debate about government surveillance. We asked Network Computing readers to weigh in and received a variety of thoughtful responses, including fear of misuse of gathered data, questions about the efficacy of technology to protect against terrorism, and whether the actions of the NSA and other government agencies violate the principles, if not the laws, on which the country was founded.

Ward Thrasher writes:

We are sacrificing our freedoms in the name of perceived security. Much like the failed ability of facial recognition to pick out known security threats in a crowd, this snooping provides government with far, far more data than is necessary to combat terrorism or other national security threats. This snooping has failed to thwart many terrorist attacks since it was in place, and arguably has been only partially, even tangentially, involved in stopping those which have been reported.

During the Clinton administration, the government decided national security was best handled through the application of technology, rather than deploying human assets to gather intelligence and assess threats.

Bin Laden demonstrated how easily terrorists can avoid the prying eyes (ears) of PRISM. Using the old-school sneaker net permits information to be moved without exposing it to technology-based surveillance. As PRISM's details emerge, the bad guys will simply move off the grid, rotate cell numbers frequently and take other steps to eliminate the (arguable) benefit of the PRISM program.

In exchange for this perceived blanket of security, the government now has access to behavioral patterns of folks who are not accused of criminal wrongdoing. This information can be used in any number of nefarious ways to the detriment of individuals, groups and society. An official promise to not do so is less than reassuring that this information will not be misused.

Not only does PRISM violate the constraints of the Constitution, its acceptance by society as a "necessary evil" places us on a slippery slope of ever more infringement of rights in the name of security. As Franklin is oft quoted, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The use of technology is something that must be deployed judiciously when it comes to the essential liberties guaranteed us by our Founding Fathers.

Antonio Leding sees the potential for abuse when technology moves faster than our ability to create sensible policies. He writes:

This is the exact event the Framers worried about. Part of the genius of America was that it started with the simple belief that our lives--both individually and collectively--are ours to manage as we see fit. The Framers gave us a set of starting blocks to begin from and if, over time, we decided that fundamental rights should be abridged, then the Constitution is supposed to make that process extremely difficult and force the massive debate that should occur with something so grave as that kind of change.

From a policy and legal perspective, America does not deal with rapid changes very well at all. As technology accelerates [it] enables us to completely short-circuit processes that previously could not be avoided--and these very processes are lynchpins in the American experiment. We all seem to forget an extremely important point--that humans are always flawed and that technology has the unique property by which to magnify the harmful impact of human laziness and flaws.

To those who say PRISM is necessary to protect America, the first question is, who's protecting us from PRISM? I've searched far and wide, and I've yet to find a single instance of a big brother state where those being governed led happy and meaningful lives like we have mostly been accustomed to here in the USA.

Sam Brauer questions the validity of big data analysis as a mechanism for thwarting terrorism.

To begin with, I'm not an IT guy, and I'm no whiz at analyzing big data. I'm a guy who's been part of and hung around the scientific research community for a long time (I help commercialize advanced materials), so perhaps I have a different perspective on the NSA/PRISM debate.

There's an interesting parallel that can be drawn with the debate about analyzing genomes in the biology community. The limitations of the big data approach in biology are becoming clear.

We know for certain that genetic patterns in individuals are different. But if we look at the assumptions that the NSA has made, why on earth would terrorists have different patterns in phone conversations than, say, high school gossip? There's no physical basis, and no information basis that's readily apparent.

How can the NSA know that they have a representative sample of terrorists' call patterns to analyze? If they don't know how many terrorists there are, then whoever they've got in their net might be too small a sample from which to extrapolate meaningful information. Why would the terrorists be in constant touch? Wasn't the point of the supposed Red sleeper networks to NOT communicate with agents so that they can't be identified? Why does the NSA assume that there is a constant flow of communication to terrorists that can be identified?

From my perspective, given the idiotic assumptions (and there are only synonyms that make sense here), this whole program has become an exercise in trying to find signal in the noise. At least when the physicists do it, they have a good hypothesis. The NSA doesn't. You can spend fortunes in time and money looking for signals that aren't there.

At the end of the day, if this is an example of how NSA spends its resources and our tax dollars, I think the organization's initials must stand for No Significant Accomplishments--except for impinging on all of our freedoms.

What are your thoughts about the government's broad data-gathering activities? Are they necessary? Effective? Or do they go too far? Share your comments and join the debate.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Conry-Murray

Former Director of Content & Community

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