This article was published on January 28, 2016

Remember PRISM? Congress is secretly discussing it next week

Remember PRISM? Congress is secretly discussing it next week
Kirsty Styles
Story by

Kirsty Styles


Kirsty Styles is a journalist who lives in Hackney. She was previously editor at Tech City News and is now a reporter at The Next Web. She l Kirsty Styles is a journalist who lives in Hackney. She was previously editor at Tech City News and is now a reporter at The Next Web. She loves tech for good, cleantech, edtech, assistive tech, politech (?), diversity in tech.

It’s been almost three years since Edward Snowden revealed that US law enforcers had direct access into the servers of companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, enabling them to read emails, live chats and browser search history.

Doesn’t time fly?

But, in the great world of news, the PRISM monitoring program has fallen right off the radar in the US and elsewhere, as government and tech companies grapple over encryption, along with the linguistics of mass-surveillance, or bulk collection.

In fact, we even told you to forget about it.

Well, PRISM looks like it’s back, with the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, the ‘lawyer for the House’ to you and me, holding a “classified” meeting next week to discuss the law that let this spying program happen.

With responsibilities that cover civil liberties, claims against the United States and criminal law enforcement, the contents of the committee meeting called by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (yep, that’s his name) is likely to be of some interest.

However, where typically the participants at such hearings in Congress are posted on the relevant website, with a live-feed whacked up afterwards, this particular page is bare.

Calls for transparency

This week, 25 civil liberties organizations have called on Goodlatte to honor promises made last year when the USA Freedom Act came in, governing mass-surveillance of US nationals, to discuss at least some of the FISA Amendments Act (catchy) talks in public.

“The normal practice is to hold an open hearing,” said Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the letter’s signatories. “If the committee decides to hold a closed hearing, they will almost always accompany it with an open hearing for the public.”

EFF and the other organizations are most concerned about Section 702 of the act that let NSA spies tap the “backbone of the internet” to view calls, messages and other content of non-US citizens and was shown to drag in innocents from the US and everyone else as well.

“PRISM collection expires after December 2017,” Jaycox told TNW. “I expect as we get close to that date, more discussions about the program will be had.

“Indeed, this closed hearing will probably include PRISM, which is even more reason to hold it open to the public.”

Can we still expect privacy?

While many have resigned themselves to the ‘privacy doesn’t exist’ camp, we’ve continued to discuss metadata collection ever since Snowden made his first revelations, as well as urging tech companies and the government to protect encryption.

This seems rather peculiar, given that PRISM actually appeared to be far more invasive than bulk metadata collection, although given it wasn’t targeted at US citizens specifically, perhaps it wasn’t quite as scary as it could have been.

The documents released at the time indicted that the tech giants were complicit, although many of them officially denied knowledge of its existence.

For me at least, this adds an element of distrust when Tim Cook et al come in riding on white horses insisting the public should be able to have access to strong encryption.

“Our confidence has been severely eroded in having policymakers making these decisions for us,” Jacob Ginsberg, senior director at encrypted messaging service Echoworx, told TNW.

“So end-point encryption to secure communications is more important than ever in the face of overwhelming surveillance.

“But I don’t think you can say with any certainty that your communications are private and the way you can try to ensure that is not within the reach or technical capacity of ordinary people.

“I hope awareness and discussions of these issues will help.”

Who’s with me?

Short of ‘going dark’ – AKA switching off from public life – or relying on civil liberties organizations to keep fighting the good fight, it’s not clear exactly what we can do next.

I’m proposing a general strike from the Web as the only thing that will hit internet service providers, and then the regulators, where it might hurt. Where the money is. Us.

If only you could prise the iPhone out of my hand.

25 Civil Liberties Organizations Call for Open Hearings on Section 702 Surveillance [EFF]

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