PRISM is a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program launched in 2007 by the National Security Agency (NSA), with participation from an unknown date by the British equivalent agency, GCHQ. PRISM is a government code name for a data-collection effort known officially by the SIGAD US-984XN. The Prism program collects stored Internet communications based on demands made to Internet companies such as Google Inc. under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms. The NSA can use these Prism requests to target communications that were encrypted when they traveled across the Internet backbone, to focus on stored data that telecommunication filtering systems discarded earlier, and to get data that is easier to handle, among other things.
PRISM began in 2007 in the wake of the passage of the Protect America Act under the Bush Administration. The program is operated under the supervision of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court, or FISC) pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Its existence was leaked six years later by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who warned that the extent of mass data collection was far greater than the public knew and included what he characterized as “dangerous” and “criminal” activities. The disclosures were published by The Guardian and The Washington Post on June 6, 2013. Subsequent documents have demonstrated a financial arrangement between NSA’s Special Source Operations division (SSO) and PRISM partners in the millions of dollars.
Documents indicate that PRISM is “the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports”, and it accounts for 91% of the NSA’s Internet traffic acquired under FISA section 702 authority.” The leaked information came to light one day after the revelation that the FISA Court had been ordering a subsidiary of telecommunications company Verizon Communications to turn over to the NSA logs tracking all of its customers’ telephone calls on an ongoing daily basis.
U.S. government officials have disputed some aspects of the Guardian and Washington Post stories and have defended the program by asserting it cannot be used on domestic targets without a warrant, that it has helped to prevent acts of terrorism, and that it receives independent oversight from the federal government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches. On June 19, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama, during a visit to Germany, stated that the NSA’s data gathering practices constitute “a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people.”
However, a secret NSA rule change in 2011 now permits “back door” warrantless searches for domestic emails and phone calls. Moreover, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that the “backdoor search loophole” has been used.