NSA PRISM Program: The NSA Is Up to More Than Just PRISM


The details about the NSA's second frighteningly Big Brother-ish data-mining program have been sidelined by the talk of PRISM, but it's worth paying a bit more attention to the NSA initiative that was first leaked to the public last week. BLARNEY, the NSA’s phone surveillance program, captures metadata from communication, while PRISM obtains the actual content of the correspondence. Thus, many might approve of the use of BLARNEY while condemning the tactics of PRISM.

We have seen a strategic and deliberate doublespeak in which defense of the NSA’s activity attempts to reassure the public by describing the limitations of BLARNEY, when that is an entirely separate system from PRISM. Thus, if one wished, they could defend the actions of PRISM by explaining the limitations of BLARNEY and failing to explain the two are very different programs. Understanding that the two are separate is crucial to making sense of the coming debate.

Edward Snowden, in his leaks, mentioned both systems, but while PRISM mines the content of messages, BLARNEY works to intercept communication at a level above the PRISM system. While both work in unison, BLARNEY provides information from what The Guardian refers to as being “upstream” of PRISM.  

While defending the actions of the NSA, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided details about BLARNEY highlighted in one statement while omitting the major differences between that program and PRISM. He seems to have defended PRISM by describing the limitations of BLARNEY, in other words. BLARNEY is not nearly as terrifying as PRISM due to the fact that the type of information gathered by the former is strictly metadata. However, the two are used together, and that is what allows the NSA to gain more information that if they were to have just used one.

Remember Mark Klein, the AT&T whistle blower who gained media attention back in 2006? Well, it looks like BLARNEY closely resembles the data-collection methods described by Klein.

During Klein’s testimony, he spoke about the installation of a fiber-optic splitter device at AT&T’s office in San Francisco where all data taken in is diverted to a separate room run by the NSA. Think Progress wrote that Klein remarked that the room contains “powerful computer equipment connecting to separate networks” and has the ability to “analyze communications at high speed.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is currently in a lawsuit against the NSA on behalf of AT&T customers in an attempt to put a stop to the dragnet tactics employed by the government and the corporation in the name of tracking terrorist activity. Klein’s testimony and evidence provide much of the foundation for the case.

Think Progress interviewed Cindy Cohn, legal director of the EFF, who commented that BLARNEY “appears to be what we’ve been saying, and what Mark Klein’s evidence shows.”

The Washington Post reports that BLARNEY is described as “an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.”

While PRISM is truly disturbing, noting the existence of both platforms and understanding the difference between them will help us to better understand comments from the NSA’s various apologists. For Americans concerned with liberty, the stories of both of these surveillance tactics will be worth following.