PRISM Scandal: These Numbers Are Terrifying — and What We Don't Know is Scarier


The recent revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) top-secret spying program PRISM, which uses direct access to the servers of some of the world's biggest technology companies to monitor the internet communications of millions of people, confirm the continued far-reaching extent of the surveillance state under the Obama administration. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed the existence of the program after it was revealed by the Guardian and the Washington Post on Thursday.

Clapper's claimed that the information collected by the program "is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats." However, under the guise of national security, the nature of such threats is rarely, if ever, revealed, and the program allows the NSA to retrieve the information essentially at its own discretion, without having to request it or obtain a court order.

As developments continue and the Obama administration goes on the defensive, Foreign Policy's Elia Groll has compiled a handy by the numbers guide to what we know about the program to date. Here are some of the highlights and some extras:

Nine: The number of tech companies whose servers NSA has access to (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple).

Nine: The number of technology companies who have denied knowledge of the existence of the program despite claims that the program is run with their assistance.

2007: The year the program began, with Microsoft the first company to be involved. The program has been running ever since.

2012: The year in which Obama renewed the changes to surveillance laws, made under Bush, which allowed the NSA to access the information. According to the Washington Post, prior to the law changes under Bush, "the government had to show probable cause that a particular 'target' and 'facility' were both connected to terrorism or espionage." So much for Obama's claims that surveillance practices would change under his leadership. 

$20 million: the annual cost of PRISM, a small portion of the NSA's estimated total annual budget of $8 billion. Imagine what the NSA is doing with the rest of that money.

77,000: the number of intelligence reports that have cited PRISM since it began. 

2,000: number of PRISM-based reports currently being issued each month according to the NSA. In 2012, a total of 24,005 were issued, up 27% from the previous year. 

98%: The percentage of PRISM output based on just three companies, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

248%: The percentage increase in the number of communications obtained from Skype in 2012.

131%: The percentage increase in the number of communications obtained from Facebook in 2012.

63%: The percentage increase in the number of communications obtained from Google in 2012.

1,477%: The number of times that Obama's daily intelligence briefing has cited data obtained by PRISM.

0: The number of threats allegedly thwarted by the program that we can confirm. That's classified; we just have to trust the government, apparently.

Obama defended the program on Friday, making the remarkable claim that "in the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance." Except that the only details we are allowed to see reveal a disturbing picture of a government surveillance program with widespread access to information about the communications of millions of people and no need to prove that it has any actual basis for collecting this information other than the nebulous, catch-all invocation of national security.