The revelations came via a top secret document that had been leaked to them by an anonymous source who was said to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), the government agency responsible for the collection and analysis of foreign communications. The document took the form of a 41-slide presentation that outlined a government program called Prism, which claimed to be able to collect users search histories, read their emails, examine any file transfers and even record live chats on IMs or VOIP clients such as Skype. Prism, it stated, did this by having direct access to the servers of the major US companies, and even listed how long each had been involved. Microsoft were the first back in 2007, with the others joining year after year up until Apple in 2012. See all related internet articles.
It also revealed that the Verizon network, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the US, had been ordered to give them unilateral access to its customers call records - Who to? Who from? How long? Where and when? - for a three month period between April and July of this year. This was subsequently confirmed by Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to have been a recurring request that had begun seven years earlier. See also: Facebook leaks 6 million users' details.
The story caused a storm of controversy as people became aware of the breadth and depth of the surveillance operations that the Obama administration was overseeing. The technology companies, no doubt fearing serious potential damage to their reputation and therefore their business, were quick to strenuously deny any involvement with the program. Google released a statement which read "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data."
How the government's data collecting program 'Prism' work?
As speculation about Prism began to mount James Clapper, the director of US National Intelligence, confirmed that the NSA had gathered data from the large technology sites, but offered the justification 'Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats'. Soon the President himself called a press conference where he announced that the content of telephone calls were not being listened to, and that the internet snooping was only for non-US citizens. 'You can't have a hundred percent security, and also then have a hundred percent privacy, and zero inconvenience....we're gonna have to make some choices' he stated.
Further investigation also revealed that GCHQ, the centre of Britain's intelligence agency, also had access to Prism since 2010 and had used it to generate nearly two hundred reports. Although neither GCHQ or the government would comment directly on how they use intelligence information, which is not uncommon in these circumstances, the Foreign secretary William Hague did give an interview on the Andrew Marr show where he responded to concerns regarding the legality of the surveillance. 'The idea that people are sitting at GCHQ working out how to circumvent a UK law with another agency in another country is fanciful, it's nonsense' Hague said. 'If you are a law abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear. Nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that. Indeed you'll never be aware of all the things those agencies are doing to stop your identity being stolen and to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow.'
With the world paying close attention to the unfolding drama surrounding Prism, the previously anonymous source was revealed to be Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA who had been working in the National Security Agency (NSA) as an outside contractor during the previous four years. Fearing the repercussions of his actions Snowden had fled to Hong Kong before releasing the information, but now decided to give an interview with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald where he could explain the reasons for his whistleblowing and confirm the validity of the top secret documents.
'Even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded,' he stated, 'and the storage capabilities of these systems increases every year, consistently, by order of magnitude. To where it's getting to the point where you don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinise every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.'
'I'm no different from anyone else,' said Snowden. 'I don't have special skills, I'm just another guy who sits there, day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes 'this is something that's not our place to decide'. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong, and I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say I didn't change these, I didn't modify the story, this is the truth, this is what's happening, you should decide whether we need to be doing this.'
Snowden has since been described as a traitor and potential Chinese spy by some, while others regard him as an American hero who put his personal safety and liberty at risk to expose a government's behaviour to its people. As we go to press Snowden has left Hong Kong and has travelled to Moscow where he is waiting for a reported request for asylum to be granted by the Ecuadorian government and then complete his journey. The Americans called for the Russian government to expel him but Russian president Vladimir Putin himself said that would not happen.
Whatever his final destination, Snowden has already achieved the aim that led him to become the world's most wanted man. The debate about how much a government should be allowed to pry into the lives of its citizens, and the long term storage of private information about them, is now happening in the public space. The internet age has significantly increased the sheer amount of data that is available to secretive agencies, and with the now revealed analytical engines such as Boundless Informant that the NSA use to make sense of this information, their power over the detail of people's lives increases on a daily basis. Surveillance and spying have always been with us and are a necessary tool in the fight against those who would seek to endanger a nations people. The question at the heart of the matter is how much you trust the ones in power to do the right thing with this formidable weapon?