PRISM Scandal: It's Too Late For the Obama Administration to Claim It's Being "Transparent"


With the unintentional declassification of the United States federal government's surveillance program PRISM came an onslaught of public outrage, and the perpetuation of the negative consequences of modern cyber warfare. We are in a state of digital unrest. This admission of PRISM, as it seemed to be when Obama discussed on Friday, has so far proved to be a less than auspicious at transparency for the Obama administration.

The PRISM story first blew up after slides from a government presentation was released by the Guardian, which showed the surveillance program to be just one method of cyber-surveillance in a two-pronged defense method. What incensed the public about PRISM is its stated intention of acquiring information on Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, and Yahoo via backdoor access to their servers.

"Upstream," the other program listed on the now infamous slide, is stated to use "fiber cable and infrastructures as data flows past" to collect information. The public does not seem so incensed by this aspect of data collection for two apparent reasons:

1. It does not collect from the social media and consumer computing giants mentioned in PRISM, and therefore seems comparatively less imposing to the average citizen.

2. Because those companies were named, the media field day naturally continued in the questioning of Google, Facebook, Yahoo et al of their knowledge of this program.

In response, technological figureheads like Sergey Brin of Google claimed to have no knowledge of the program and unanimously denied granting "direct access" to their servers. In an attempt to avoid the press storm, they turned their backs on the U.S. government, the same government that Wikileaks creator Julian Assange claims they are in bed with.

Moreover, with Assange in mind, one must take into account the cognitive dissonance of transparency in this story as it unfolds. The NSA and President Obama have both gone acutely public with this program, explaining the administration's awareness of the program, the implied ethics at stake, and the verifiable legality of the program. Mark Zuckerberg, in his token denial of Facebook's knowledge of PRISM, ended with a call for all governments to be more transparent. The irony is potent, because at this point in time, the PRISM narrative is precisely that the government trying to open up about its defense practices. And Zuckerberg acted like he was calling for it as if it was not right in front of him.

Most news sources agree that the PRISM tale has yet to unfold in full. Details have not emerged beyond the slides and what the federal government copped to on Friday. The administration will likely have to compete with news sources to dole out facts about PRISM, but it could prove even more disastrous than it is now. Perhaps the exact, technical methods of collection will be next detail to come out. No matter how above the board it may really be, detractors and demagogues will invoke the rights of the Constitution to deride it. That is expected. However, if innocent-looking targets of the surveillance emerge, the feds will have to face impending doom from the press. Given the Chinese govenment's ongoing cyber warfare against America, this public lashing seems a bit overblown, don’t you think?