Americans who disapprove of the government reading their emails have more to worry about from a different and larger NSA effort. As the AP reports, the program, that snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone, which has apparently been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis. As the name suggests, Prism is merely the intelligent filter, finding discrete, manageable strands of information within this much more massive data stream that is being collected and stored. Prism makes sense of the cacophony of the Internet's raw feed. What is unclear, as more details, interviews and documents become available, is how Prism fits into a larger U.S. wiretapping program in place for years (know as 'Hoovering' at one major internet company).
The government are in active denial, "the perspective is that we’re trying to hide something because we did something wrong. We’re not," but some senators note, "secret programs approved by a secret court, issuing secret court orders, based on secret interpretations of the law," hardly fit the 'transparency' ethic this administration has promoted.
In the meantime, as one former NSA official noted, "You have to assume everything is being collected."
Public statements and the few public documents available, show there are two vital components to Prism's success.
The first is how the government works closely with the companies that keep people perpetually connected to each other and the world. That story line has attracted the most attention so far.
The second and far murkier one is how Prism fits into a larger U.S. wiretapping program in place for years.
But, it is clearly an escalation...
The NSA is prohibited from spying on Americans or anyone inside the United States. That's the FBI's job and it requires a warrant.
Despite that prohibition, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to plug into the fiber optic cables that enter and leave the United States, knowing it would give the government unprecedented, warrantless access to Americans' private conversations.
Tapping into those cables allows the NSA access to monitor emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more. It takes powerful computers to decrypt, store and analyze all this information, but the information is all there, zipping by at the speed of light.
And it is all being stored...
The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified.
That means Americans' personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can't access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.
The government doesn't automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.
What's unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data.
Congress approved it, with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in the midst of a campaign for president, voting against it.
"This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide," Obama said in a speech two days before that vote.
"I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom."
The corporations knew what was coming...
When the Protect America Act made warrantless wiretapping legal, lawyers and executives at major technology companies knew what was about to happen.
One expert in national security law, who is directly familiar with how Internet companies dealt with the government during that period, recalls conversations in which technology officials worried aloud that the government would trample on Americans' constitutional right against unlawful searches, and that the companies would be called on to help.
The logistics were about to get daunting, too.
For years, the companies had been handling requests from the FBI. Now Congress had given the NSA the authority to take information without warrants.
But the workload was becoming onerous so it was centralized
What the NSA called Prism, the companies knew as a streamlined system that automated and simplified the "Hoovering" from years earlier, the former assistant general counsel said.
The companies, he said, wanted to reduce their workload. The government wanted the data in a structured, consistent format that was easy to search.
But denials were carefully worded
Every company involved denied the most sensational assertion in the Prism documents: that the NSA pulled data "directly from the servers" of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and more.
But PRISM is a filter on what the government is really storing
Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream.
In that way, Prism helps justify specific, potentially personal searches.
But it's the broader operation on the Internet fiber optics cables that actually captures the data.
"I'm much more frightened and concerned about real-time monitoring on the Internet backbone," said Wolf Ruzicka, CEO of EastBanc Technologies, a Washington software company.
"I cannot think of anything, outside of a face-to-face conversation, that they could not have access to."
Whether the government has that power and whether it uses Prism this way remains a closely guarded secret.
Obama defends the 'intrusion' the only way we would expect:
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,"
And it's no surprise the President continued the eavesdropping
"You can't expect a president to not use a legal tool that Congress has given him to protect the country.
So, Congress has given him the tool. The president's using it.
And the courts are saying 'The way you're using it is OK.' That's checks and balances at work."
But in conclusion:
Schneier, the author and security expert, said it doesn't really matter how Prism works, technically. Just assume the government collects everything, he said.
He said it doesn't matter what the government and the companies say, either. It's spycraft, after all.
"Everyone is playing word games," he said. "No one is telling the truth."