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This article was published on June 8, 2013

PRISM, trust and what we really want to believe

PRISM, trust and what we really want to believe
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

While the latest crop of reports on the PRISM program are more measured in tone than the sensational initial stories, in the end it’s down to us to decide who to believe. After all, when it comes to intelligence agencies, we’re never going to be given the full picture.

When the Washington Post and the Guardian broke news about PRISM less than two days ago, it seemed like a pivotal moment in the history of the Internet – was the US government now able to monitor any user of popular Internet tools at any time? Was the vision of society in George Orwell’s 1984 suddenly several steps closer to reality?

24 hours after the story broke, a new wave of reports began to appear that offer a more measured explanation of how the US intelligence services and big Internet tech companies may be working together.

Not such a big deal?

The New York Times’ report claims that the same companies listed in the PRISM slides published by The Guardian have ‘negotiated’ with the US government over the sharing of information. However, it notes that the companies involved “drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders.”

The report claims that Google and Facebook had each set up technology to make it more efficient for requests for information on suspects to be delivered to government agencies. It’s an allegation that Google denies, but even if it’s true, it’s hardly the beginnings of a surveillance state. The report says that information is “shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice.”

Meanwhile, CNET quotes a source as saying that PRISM is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian… none of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The source adds “you can’t say ‘everyone in Pakistan who searched for ‘X’’… It still has to be particularized.”

So, who to believe?

The problem with any story involving the intelligence services is that it’s impossible to know who to trust: The initial reports of possibly real-time access to information on a wide range of popular Internet services? The New York Times’ claim of Google and Facebook ‘lockers’ for more efficient data sharing? Barack Obama and James R. Clapper‘s official responses ‘from the top’ that Americans should trust them? The technology companies and their stern denials that anything is going on at all?

Given that intelligence agencies specialise in misdirection, any of the news outlets breaking PRISM-related stories could have been fed lies by supposedly reliable sources. Any number of seemingly reliable sources can come forward with their own explanation of what’s going on. In the end though, this is a classified topic that the definitive truth likely won’t be made public about for decades.

This is my truth, tell me yours

Unless PRISM and all related programs are suddenly declassified to clear up this mess once and for all (let’s face it – that’s highly, highly unlikely), we’ll each have to believe what we want to believe – some will prefer to align themselves with the most rational, measured explanation while others will embrace the story that paints the government and big corporations as being in cahoots against the public.

In fact, the only definite thing we know for sure about PRISM is that it’s highlighted brighter than ever that any presumption of complete privacy online is a naive notion, and even if none of the most scary elements of the story are really true, it’s better to assume that one day, in some way, they may be – at least then you’ll be prepared.

Also read: PRISM: Here’s what you need to know about the US Internet monitoring scandal

Header image: NSA headquarters. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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