The news story that has dominated the last week of technology has been the release of details of the US Government’s top secret project called Prism. It is a program of in-depth surveillance of live communications and stored information including email, video, voice and VoIP chat, photos, file transfers and social networking.
Information held on American citizens is kept to a minimum to ensure compliance with US legislation, but as most internet communications pass through the US, this offers a huge opportunity for the American intelligence services to monitor communications that involve foreign targets.
In some PowerPoint slides released as part of the leak, some organisations were actually named – including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Apple. This led to these organisations releasing statements emphasising that they do provide information for legally transparent requests, but deny that they give the intelligence services direct access to their servers.
With UK citizens being possibly monitored via Prism, this has led to consumers demanding clarity on not only the role of Prism, but also the role of GCHQ in electronic communications surveillance.
I think that the surveillance of the internet is completely unsurprising. The volume of electronic communications, and their increasing role in criminal enterprises such as people trafficking and organised crime, makes it a very attractive to the security services. Indeed, I think that if it is done ethically, it should be welcomed. But the outstanding question is whether this wide-scale surveillance (up to 3 billion pieces of information being collected in just 30 days) has been done with government (and indirectly citizen) approval.
Initially, the controversy has been mainly from the US – if a foreign target has been conversing with a US citizen, then how can Prism collect information about the target and not the US citizen? And in the UK, what surveillance are we being subjected to, and how is data collected via Prism being used? More details are likely to be shared in the next couple of weeks, but we are still very much at the stage of more questions than answers.
This mix of internet communications, the dark world of surveillance and the role of trusted brands is a heady mix for journalists, and this story looks set to continue for some time to come.