NSA PRISM Program: Did the Government Use a Private Company to Set Up Its Spying Program?


After confirmation Thursday that the government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners from Internet companies – including Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, Apple, Facebook, and YouTube – bloggers have been attempting to figure out how the government has gone about acquiring this information while maintaining plausible deniability, and one may have figured it out.

The Washington Post reports, "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time."

Left-leaning political website Talking Points Memo published an email received from a reader who has put forth a credible explanation of how the government has been gathering information from Internet companies. It explains how the PRISM program, authorized under foreign intelligence law, has been using third-party government contractors as a means for plausible deniability for the program.

Here’s the anonymous writer’s theory:

"PRISM, the government surveillance program that analyzes the data pulled from Internet companies, operates using Palantir technology. Palantir is a data fusion software 'that allows organizations to make sense of massive amounts of disparate data. We solve the technical problems, so they can solve the human ones. Combating terrorism. Prosecuting crimes. Fighting fraud. Eliminating waste.'”  

As you may have guessed from that description taken from Palantir’s website, they cater to the intelligence community. In fact, their first client was the CIA. The CIA was also an early investor through In-Q-tel (IQT), the company that invests on behalf of the intelligence community.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, tech companies have been denying any data-sharing program with the government. Apple stated, "We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers." Google "does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data." Facebook does "not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers." And Yahoo stated, "We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network."

However, because Palantir is a government contractor, not a government entity, it is technically true that the government does not have direct access. But as the reader notes, “That sounds like exactly the tool you’d want if you were trying to find patterns in data from multiple companies.”

He then asks an important question about how this technology can be used outside of the intelligence community: “Which Palantir clients have access to this data? Just CIA & NSA? FBI? What about municipalities, such as the NYC police department? What about the governments of other countries?" To answer one of these questions, the AP is reporting that the British government has used the data. 

Although this is only a theory, it is a plausible one that reinforces the well known fact that the government and private sector are willing to use “legalese” to hide programs the public would find objectionable.