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What Is PRISM?

A little knowledge and some reasonable speculations make sense of the PRISM revelations.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

July 4, 2013 - 11:00 am
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prism-slide-6

The first step is that someone of interest is identified. According to an article in the Washington Post, there are about 120,000 targets of interest — which, honestly, doesn’t seem like a surprising number, although there are the usual outbreaks of fainting spells about it. Those targets are described in some fashion — I’m sure the details are considered very sensitive, but you know it’s a bunch of rules like “has many contacts in Yemen” and “some of the Yemeni contacts are people we’ve identified with Islamist leanings” — and those rules are put into a first layer of the system, called PRINTAURA. But look at the slide — the target selectors are put into this Uniform Targeting Tool, and then go through two review processes depending on whether it’s direct surveillance or stored data like the CDR cell phone records. So, it appears that effectively the FISA-court review happens when they pick the selectors.

Coincidentally, this appears to be exactly what they’ve been telling Congress, including the original statements Clapper made.

Now, that depends on the fiction that I mentioned in the first article that when you hoover up the original source material, it’s “acquisition” and not “collection,” but if you grant that, it sounds like Clapper wasn’t actually lying about it. They don’t “look at” everyone’s information, they have an automated selection to pull out stuff connected to targets of interest.

These selectors, I’m sure, are tuned to avoid false negatives, so some information on U.S. persons is collected too. This matches Clapper’s original statement that the NSA doesn’t collect any data at all on millions of Americans “wittingly.” Oh, they acquire it, but — again see the slide — the arrows marked collection come after the targeting rules are used. They’re the outcome of the targeting rules. Any data on U.S. persons not in the list of targets of interest is collected as a side effect.

This information is further parsed and passed around through a bunch of other systems with the usual collection of sort of nerdy names — NSA is the home of the nerd spies, the people who fancy themselves James Bonds work for CIA. (Those who know can get some more information from those slides that I’m not going to describe. I could really wish the slides were being redacted a bit better. But notice that black blob in the middle; something was redacted out on the slide. I wonder how it is that Snowden with his infinite access got redacted slides?) It ends up on the right side of the diagram going into areas where, no doubt, the data’s made available for the analysts at CIA and FBI.

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Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
The structure of Prism, IMP, Echelon, Tiara, and dozens of associated and related intelligence programs are not important. The method of capturing data is irrelevant.

What is important is the right to privacy and maintaining control of our inalienable rights. The rights of the Citizen are not checked in at the door when you sign a contract with Verizon, they are protected by the Constitution no matter what the small print says or a group of intelligence officers believe is in the best interest of the nation.
When we start down the slippery slope of ceding rights to a group of unelected, unsupervised, irresponsible individuals, lets stop pretending we are a Democratic Republic, It is intellectually dishonest.
If citizens are comfortable with handing over their rights, great. Lets be clear and amend into the Constitution, we are ceding specific rights for a false sense of security.
Otherwise lets stop the word games and hold hearings and question the individuals that thought these intelligence gathering systems are constitutional.

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"And yes, there'll be another column or article on that, as well as there being an article on Snowden already in the queue."


Just a word of caution. Be careful this sort of thing could lead to people actually learning something. And we all know how dangerous that can be! :-)

What I have noticed is those that know the least about the NSA and other intelligence agency's are the ones screaming the loudest.
I've done a little reading on this over the years, so when this story 1st broke my response was...Yes?...And?
So the question is (it seems to me) If there is a problem...What do we do? I really haven't seen an answer, yet I remain hopeful.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (46)
All Comments   (46)
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There is a big difference between our existing law enforcement processes where court approval is required to do the acquisition and collection versus one where all of that collection has already been done without approvals and where the acquired bank of data is under the control of the government agency seeking the approval to dig into it more deeply.

This later would not be much different in principle to depositing all of your money into an IRS accessible bank account so long as they promise to only take out what you owe for taxes each year.

In the case of the later, under all sorts of scenarios where you might disagree with the government, your ability to exercise your rights as a free citizen and to reject the kangaroo types of "due process" for which government is becoming increasingly famous, is severely compromised.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The only manner to understand what they are doing ;

Swear them into a hearing with full disclosure that perjury will result in Jail for any more lies. They will testify exactly what is being organized and extent it invades our privacy. Anyone caught lying again goes to jail, they will be held to same standards of justice the rest of us must live with each and every day.
This is the only manner to understand and get to the bottom of what is being forced upon citizens of the USA, and it appears now the rest of the world.
The USA built most of Internet infrastructure, that does not give US government or its private contractors permission to track us, or record who we call, email, fax or text or why...its is none of their business.
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized".
We have been violated, and the violators must be brought forward to account for their actions.



41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thursday (if I recall correctly) Michael Savage was interviewing, on his radio program, one of the guys that originally developed the software for the PRISM program. As delivered, it had various safeguards built in to protect the rights of citizens - actual telephone numbers were encrypted and need a court order to release them, certain permissions were necessary to see certain information, etc. His main beef was that all of these safeguards have been removed.

Yes these kinds of programs are necessary, but legal safeguards must be in place to protect the innocent citizen from political harassment of the sort blatantly exercised by the IRS. We can now neither trust the government nor the program safeguards. That is the problem.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Yes these kinds of programs are necessary, but legal safeguards must be in place to protect the innocent citizen from political harassment of the sort blatantly exercised by the IRS. We can now neither trust the government nor the program safeguards. That is the problem. "

You could not be more wrong.

We have NEVER been able to trust the government nor the program safeguards.

It's not about who is in the White House. It's not about what "legal safeguards" are in place.

The 4th Amendment IS the legal safeguard, and it's being ignored in the name of "safety".


THAT is the problem.

That's the whole point of our Constitution.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
And this is the whole problem: I agree completely that we can't and shouldn't trust government. I also agree completely that intelligence programs are needed. And I don't know how to baalance them. I'm pretty sure that using a massive new block of private secret law isn't the answer though: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/in-secret-court-vastly-broadens-powers-of-nsa.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=1&;
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The NSA: What Exactly Are We Paying For, Again?

Intellectually insulting responses, complete incompetence, and a whole lot of money down the drain. What's the point?
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The only think the N-Stasi-A seems competent at is spying on the American people as if their was no Bill of Rights.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
What is PRISM?

1984 writ large.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
@Charlie Martin and Ghost of Coolidge If you listen to or read Steve Gibson's Security Now 408 "The State of Surveillance " (How the MDS'd Prism Program Works) from https://www.grc.com/securitynow.htm from June 12(sMP3 and PDF available). I think he clears another aspect of the companies denying that the NSA has direct access to the Google etc servers is another neat legal fiction. They are 'prisming' the optical fibre just upstream of these companies. I believe, but don't know by research, that Steve was the first to come up with this analysis.He certainly thought so and he is a thorough researcher. I would observe as a student of the media that we all choose to get our information through certain channels. Pjmedia is not the MSM and the Podsphere is another non MSM channel that has its own audience. There is some crossover, but perhaps not enough at times. Since 408 Steve Gibson has said similar things about the sheer volume of data and the state of HDD storage. Together this article and Steve's podcasts make it all make much more sense. Thanks Charlie.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The structure of Prism, IMP, Echelon, Tiara, and dozens of associated and related intelligence programs are not important. The method of capturing data is irrelevant.

What is important is the right to privacy and maintaining control of our inalienable rights. The rights of the Citizen are not checked in at the door when you sign a contract with Verizon, they are protected by the Constitution no matter what the small print says or a group of intelligence officers believe is in the best interest of the nation.
When we start down the slippery slope of ceding rights to a group of unelected, unsupervised, irresponsible individuals, lets stop pretending we are a Democratic Republic, It is intellectually dishonest.
If citizens are comfortable with handing over their rights, great. Lets be clear and amend into the Constitution, we are ceding specific rights for a false sense of security.
Otherwise lets stop the word games and hold hearings and question the individuals that thought these intelligence gathering systems are constitutional.

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Only technically illiterate wingnuts worry about the rights and constitutions and stuff because us smart people can see that there's a FLOWCHART right there at the head of the article. And there are ALGORITHMS, FILTERS, and most likely PROCEDURES.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
And we have another candidate for the Professor PJ Dumb Comment Award.

Understanding it isn't the same as approving it.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think that you missed the in there.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
In some sense I agree with you -- but if we don't understand what they're really doing, we're liable to start believing some of the stuff that consummate ass Alex Jones puts out.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hey. Even Lyndon LaRouche is looking less and less the wingnut we all supposed him to be. Like Alex, he just threw *things* at the wall, and occasionally something stuck. Today, though, we only have a baby step or two to arrive precisely where he said we would.
As impossible as that may seem.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The structure of Prism, IMP, Echelon, Tiara, and dozens of associated and related intelligence programs are not important. The method of capturing data is irrelevant."
======================

I couldn't agree more with you. it is what 'The State' does with the information they gather and store in the name of We The People - whats the real motivation? As if they are doing us a favor by sifting information they have no right to in the first place.

The Constitution is clear that we have every right to our privacy. Trouble is that ship sailed many a moon ago - if not before certainly in the aftermath of 9/11. I think its highly unlikely we'll ever see real privacy again. There is simply too much thirst to know what it is we are up to.

The spying on citizens will continue - by government and commercial sources. The progressives are going to love the information they glean about us from the IRS after they take the reins on 'Oh Bummer Care'. Would it be a wonder if "I'm not a progressive" politician ever holds important office in this country again?

The state of Washington just put up a traffic camera in my town that overlooks the major intersection here. It is remote controlled and can pan and zoom in on events and faces over a mile or more away according to the crews that installed it. My town is a podunk town if there ever were one - a county seat with about 7,000 people. Traffic jams are as scarce as hen's teeth. I've never seen one here in 10 years living here. Makes one wonder why the hell they decided to put up a camera where nothing ever happens. Could it be they are expecting something? Interesting times it is!
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
From, say, a Google sysadmin's perspective, the most efficient way to provide PRISM with access to the data NSA wants (while protecting the corporate crown jewel database) is to create a separate database extract within Google Corp. which contains only the tables and fields specifically required by PRISM. The extract would contain ALL data for the requested tables and fields. From that extract database at Google, PRISM can then select only the records that it wants.

This allows Google to say truthfully that NSA does not have access to its main database. (Because NSA only has access to an offline extract of Google's database). It also allows NSA to say truthfully that it only collects specific records. (Because NSA has no vested interest in downloading the entire contents of the Google extract).

The scary part in this likely scenario is that NSA *could* download the whole extract from Google. A small consolation for us is that it is not likely to be in NSA's interests to do so...there would be way too many unneeded records...for now.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, the way Google stores data is peculiar -- google for "MapReduce" and "BigTable" for some idea. But it's More likely, from the diagram and for other reasons, that the FBI component is capturing data in real-time, more than grepping the database.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Many modern databases provide for views of real time data. [Such views are usually a queryable subset of all data in a database or databases (including files). I provided these to many different customers as a government sysadmin. The views always excluded parts of my schemas.] Google's MapReduce improved on views and extracts greatly. I would be kind of shocked if Google gave the FBI its proprietary crown jewels.

Not really relevant, but...a link comparing SQL views and MapReduce in a group by: http://lynnlangit.com/2012/05/24/mongodb-mapreduce-vs-sql-server-group-by-which-is-faster/.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
If there are only 120,000 or so "targets" then why collect virtually everyone's data? Why hem haw around the bush instead of saying "we have warrants to collect the data of some 120,000 or so individuals"?

As to this statement, ". . . but you know it’s a bunch of rules like “has many contacts in Yemen” and “some of the Yemeni contacts are people we’ve identified with Islamist leanings” — How the hell do we "know" the targeting phrases couldn't as easily be " former military with combat experience, many contacts in TEA party, writes often about 2nd amendment?"

Your explanation of of how technically sophisticated the system is misses the point entirely. Nobody doubts is't sophisticated. Many of us still doubt it's in keeping with the letter or spirit of the Constitution, and many of us know very well how easily it could . . . and most likely has been misused.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Do note that I said the *fiction* this is just aquisition and not collection. If you go back and read the original article, you'll see that I'm against it. I just think we'd be better off understand just what it is and why we're against it.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
" I just think we'd be better off understand just what it is and why we're against it. "


Bingo. "Know thine enemy."
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
f there are only 120,000 or so "targets" then why collect virtually everyone's data?

Exactly. That's why I suspect there's substantial preprocessing being done before the official collection is done.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
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