Completing the PRISM jigsaw puzzle

The NSA takes such great quantities of data legally that it has built a system to manage it.

A week on from the revelations in the Guardian and Washington Post about the PRISM revelations, and the dust is settling. The tech companies have issued their denials; Edward Snowden has revealed himself as the source of the leak; and the Guardian has published five of the slides from the presentation in which the NSA lay out the scheme. At the same time, the recontextualisation of what we previously knew has brought more information forward.

Putting it all together, we can start getting our first really good guess at what PRISM actually is:

A system for requesting and managing data from major online companies using the FISA provisions which allow for secret collection of information.

That guess comes from examining the constraints which are laid out by the various pieces of information made public:

  • PRISM only cost $20m: That's an astonishingly low price, and suggests that the vast majority of the work was done by the companies themselves. It rules out anything involving breaking encryption, or significant amounts of hardware being installed externally.
  • The firms involved have all denied it: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?" Nonetheless, many of the denials are worded incredibly strongly. Take Google's chief architect:

    Even if I couldn't talk about it, in all likelihood I would no longer be working at Google: the fact that we do stand up for individual users' privacy and protection, for their right to have a personal life which is not ever shared with other people without their consent, even when governments come knocking at our door with guns, is one of the two most important reasons that I am at this company.

    That suggests that the majority of what the NSA considers to be the PRISM program is in their hands, not the companies'.

  • FISA requests are not public: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a thirty-year-old law which was most recently amended in 2008, allows US government agencies to make demands for data through a secret court. Requests to the court for warrants are rarely turned down, and companies are not allowed to publicise how many requests they make.
  • The NSA describes collection of data "directly from the servers" of participating companies: This is the claim which has got everyone into such trouble. The Washington Post appears to have based its claim that PRISM consisted of "direct access" to their servers on this phrasing; it has since retracted that claim. The Guardian has not retracted, but has now provided an alternative description of what it means:

    The Guardian understands that the NSA approached those companies and asked them to enable a "dropbox" system whereby legally requested data could be copied from their own server out to an NSA-owned system.

    That would involve collecting data "directly from servers" while not quite involving the NSA having "direct access" to the companies data. (By way of analogy, when you visit Google.com, you are downloading data from Google's servers, but it would probably be misleading to say you had "direct access" to their servers.) That matches information Google has disclosed about how it transfers data to the NSA: through good, old-fashioned FTP.

So it seems like PRISM is the name for the scheme by which FISA demands for data are transferred to the NSA. If that's the case, the technology of PRISM isn't the scary thing. Neither is the possibility of illegal activity on the part of the NSA.

Instead, it's that FISA requests are served in such great quantities that the NSA has spent $20m building special infrastructure to speed up receiving the data. Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Facebook are now lobbying the NSA to allow them to reveal how many FISA requests they've been served with: if it's astronomical, we'll have confirmation that that's the real scandal.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile