The NSA's data tapping: America through the PRISM

The <em>Guardian</em>'s stories of the last two days are the highest-level US leaks since the Pentagon Papers.

Yesterday, I asked if the story about the US National Security Administration secretly  requisitioning phone records went deeper – if social networking data might not be as easily requisitioned by security forces as phone metadata. Within hours, the Guardian provided the answer, in the form of a leaked PowerPoint presentation, classified 'Top Secret', which was “apparently used to train intelligence operatives” as part a program named PRISM.

This is now the second of two such 'Top Secret' documents obtained by the Guardian in as many days; an astonishing achievement, considering that the last documents of this level of American security classification to be actually published in the press were the famous “Pentagon Papers”, by the New York Times in 1971, forty-two years ago.

Nothing that WikiLeaks published ever carried this level of security classification. Most of the documents they leaked to the press were “secret” level, with a few “confidential” and unclassified documents thrown in.

This puts the Guardian in a unique position. Whoever leaked these documents – both the Verizon court order, and the intelligence training PowerPoint presentation the following day, two separate leaks – could be in real trouble under the Espionage Act as well as several other US statutes.

It is also worth mentioning that the Nixon administration did place an injunction on the New York Times and the Washington Post over the release of the Pentagon Papers, though it was lifted after fifteen days by the Supreme Court, which upheld the papers' First Amendment rights. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that the DoJ “will not prosecute any reporter from doing his or her job.”

Nonetheless, this leak is absolutely unprecedented in the internet age, and the Obama administration is developing a worrying reputation for hostility to journalists; the DoJ named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a 'co-consipirator' under the Espionage Act in order to put him under surveillance in 2010, the first time a journalist had ever been targeted this way in the US.

This also comes at a time when Army Private Bradley Manning, who gave WikiLeaks their biggest information-dump of classified material, is facing military trial for leaks. Prosecutors are seeking to prove that he was “aiding the enemy” - which is technically a capitol offence in the US, though they apparently do not intend to seek the death penalty.

US Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper gave a statement yesterday condemning the leaks, saying that they threaten “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” and highlighted that everything the NSA has been shown to be doing is “within the constraints of the law”. House intelligence chairman Mike Rogers defended the phone data requisition program to the Washington Post too, saying that within the last few years, the phone record requisition program had been used to stop a terrorist attack within the United States. But libertarian senator Rand Paul called the seizure shown by the first leak an “astounding assault on the constitution”.

The PRISM logo.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.