What is PRISM - and should Aussies be concerned?

  • Confirms what most people imagined
  • Australians have likely been exposed
  • Home-grown Intelligence snooping



It’s going to take a while to effectively tease out the facts from the noise regarding PRISM, the framework agreement between US intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley to share information. It’s either a conspicuous intrusion on the private lives of US citizens, or merely the real life expression of what we all figured was going on anyway.

But what about us Aussies? Australians are net consumers of web content. Our slow upload speeds and distance from major international interconnection points makes it difficult to serve the world with web content and services. As such, most of what we buy, watch, stream, play, Facebook and Instagram runs through somewhere else, carrying with it our personal data. As a majority English-speaking country, chances are most of what we do runs through the US internet at some point. We’re definitely exposed to a system that has been shown to be less than private. But that’s probably no surprise to many of us.

                                  What PRISM is

      digital snooping


PRISM is a US government program launched in 2007 to monitor foreign communications passing through US servers. ‘Foreign’ in this context seems to be restricted to those communications that involved terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism. But technology abhors a vacuum- the apparatus to monitor these communications (be they web searches, VoIP calls, e-mails) is well funded and well-resourced, and have the ability to monitor almost...well, everything. And there seems to be little doubt that they monitor everything. The account from the Washington Post is that 14% of ALL reports from US Intelligence Services (including the FBI, CIA, NSA and Secret Service) contained data mined from PRISM.

More alarming is the extent to which Silicon Valley co-operated. We rely on the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype to keep our things private. But Google...no-one wants their Google search histories and activity exposed, no matter how harmless. Think about it- Google knows more about you, the real you, than your own partner (most likely).  You may not have much to hide, but the idea that it’s all sitting there waiting to be mined and to paint a picture of you is nevertheless a scary one. That said, there is evidence that all of the companies involved provided some pushback, knowing full well that they had a duty of care over people’s personal information. But they all relented eventually.

                                What PRISM isn’t


Hard to say, but the most relevant thing is that PRISM is really no surprise. We all suspect that there is some monitoring of personal communications going on, but we all probably expect that they’re there to catch criminals, child molesters and terrorists. It seems bizarre that anyone would want, let alone need the personal photographs, text messages and phone calls of everyday law-abiding citizens.

But of course, no terrorist is an island. Just like in the physical world, most investigative work is done by skirting around the edges of the criminal world. You don’t ask a murderer for details on his life and habits; you ask their parents, or partner, or neighbours. Criminals can encrypt messages and hide their tracks. It’s easier to find clues in the detritus of what they leave behind in the clean world.

Though it’s early days, the chances are still that even the US Intelligence Service lacks the resources to scrutinize EVERY communication if at least some keywords don’t pop up. But with the revelation that the keyword search algorithm was designed to deliver a “51% certainty’ of a candidate’s ‘foreignness’, the worry is that too much of citizen’s lives are being snooped on where it isn’t necessary. And that will absolutely be corruptible at some point. The people working in these agencies are human. They’ll slip. They’ll use their access to stalk an ex. Or to deliver info on informants to organized criminal syndicates, for cash. Or to make a personal enemy’s life a living hell.


                                         defense signals directorate

Chances are, some of your data has been scrutinized. We may not be considered ‘foreign’ in the context that the Intelligence Services are looking out for, but even within Australia there are groups and individuals that fit that profile. Having a foreign government keeping dibs on you crosses lines that we might not want to cross, even if it DOES mean targeting the worst of the worst.

Turns out, we needn’t worry about US interlopers – we have our own. IT Wire has reported on a facility this week, being built in a quiet part of Canberra that will be filled with the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD, or local version of the National Security Agency in the US). And you better believe it’s a data centre.

                                 So what can I do?

  bomb shelter

  The coast is clear! Break out the pr0n!

Um...well. That’s a good question. If you have something to hide, then maybe stop doing that. But for those of us who have stuff to hide that isn’t illegal (but otherwise we’d like to keep anonymous) there are services to assist. Specifically, there are services like the TOR network which exist to allow corporate whistleblowers and political dissidents in tyrannical regimes to get their message out to the world. There’s Wikileaks, which barely exists most of the time. There’s proxies, Virtual Private Networks, and more. But remember: all of these facilities are used by do-badders as well. It’s not great company to keep.

Copyright infringement is a worry for many. Australia is still one of the most pirate-y nations on Earth, largely thanks to our appetite for foreign TV and films, and delayed access to them. Piracy and Copyright infringement still exists in a legal grey area (read the link, see if you can see anything about digital file sharing). But no doubt, by now it’s very likely that there’s a record of you torrenting or usenet-ting episode 306 of Game of Thrones somewhere. The question is: if this became very strictly illegal tomorrow, with heavy jail penalties, would you be arrested based on that past collection of data? If so, our jails would be clogged with 16-35 year olds, with a spry trade in illegally smuggled USB sticks full of Futurama episodes going on underneath the warden’s nose.

More seriously, the issue is of concern to everyone as more and more of our lives are digitized. Having an affair isn’t illegal, but having it outed can ruin lives nonetheless. Like many forms of government overreach, it will come back to bite ordinary citizens. If it becomes harder and harder to hide clandestine activity, those with something to really hide will just find better ways to circumvent the apparatus. And soon the government will ONLY be spying on the law-abiding citizen, otherwise ignorant in the amount of intrusion into their daily lives that their representatives may wield.