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, 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.

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.