It now appears there may have been less than met the eye to reports about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program for obtaining information on users from a variety of top internet players including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and Apple. Detailed stories by Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times and Declan McCullagh on Cnet describe a process by which the companies worked out an arrangement with NSA for an efficient, and secret, response to request for information.
The PRISM story, broken nearly simultaneously by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian and Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras in The Washington Post, seemed a bit off from the beginning. It was impossible to square the stories with the fervent denials of the companies involved. It now appears that the stories, based on a deck of PowerPoint slides describing PRISM, may have overstated the cased and that the slides themselves may have exaggerated NSA’s capabilities. It wouldn’t be the first time a PowerPoint presentation stretched the truth a bit, and the slides that were published has a distinct marketing tone to them.
But there are now two big questions here. One is what is really going on with government access to internet records, phone records, and who knows what else. The other is who or what is behind a flood of leaks of classified documents. Today, for the third time in four days, Greenwald (with Ewan MacAskill) published a leaked classified document, a presidential order requesting what amount to cyber war plans. One of the toughest jobs a journalist faces is trying to figure out the motives of a leaker; if you are being used, it’s good to know for what purpose. Leaks, unless they are authorized (which is sometimes the case), entail great risk to the leaker and I believe something other than public-spiritedness is usually behind them.
If the Obama’s administration had hoped to stop leaks by coming down hard on leakers, the strategy clearly is not working. But there is a curious coincidence in the timing and content of these particular leaks. The come as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the U.S. for talks with President Obama about, among other things, charges of official Chinese intrusions into government and corporate computer systems in the U.S.
It’s more than a little mind-bending to figure out what to make of all of this.