Analysis PRISM, the top secret US National Security Agency web communications and user data collection program revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden last Friday, and targeted on nine top US web service providers, would seem unlikely to be the total, tyrannical surveillance behemoth reporters first assumed.
That’s because its numbers, as published, just don’t add up.
The Guardian may also have missed a potentially significant scoop buried within the PRISM revelations – apparent confirmation that about the time in 2011 that Microsoft acquired Skype for $7bn, the U.S. government also acquired a back way in to the previously secure, complex and highly trusted peer-to-peer voice over IP system.
Analysis also suggests that the much more complex surveillance system that the Home Office wants installed in Britain using powers proposed in the now discredited draft Communications Data Bill (CDB) would be far more intrusive than PRISM.
PRISM intelligence collection, despite the hullabaloo, is phrased in terms of “requests” to be made to specified US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. While the slides published by The Guardian do refer to “collection directly from the servers of these [companies]”, this appears to refer to links from NSA central systems to special company servers facilitating law enforcement or intelligence data queries, not to huge pipes into entire petabyte scale company databases.
The NSA has numerous other collection programs, including deep packet inspection (DPI) systems akin to those sought in the CDB. Some were planned in the late 1990s. These include the secret room installed in AT&T’s internet exchange and peering point in downtown San Francisco and revealed by whistleblower Mark Klein in 2006. The San Fran secret room was fed by optical fibres spliced into most of the US west coast Internet backbone. These fed into high end DPI analysis equipment, whose output was presumed to be routed back to NSA.
The NSA also has access to global communications satellite traffic through a series of programmes and ground stations starting with ECHELON in 1968, and to global submarine cable traffic through interception points located at or near cable landing sites in the US, UK and other co-operating countries. A specially equipped nuclear submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, carries cutting, tapping and interception systems to lie on the sea bed. The submarine has been in active service since 2005.
According to the “overview” slide, PRISM is “the SIGAD [Sigint Activity Designator] used most in NSA reporting” (emphasis in original). The PRISM collection program was also designated US-984XN, and is run by NSA’s “special source operations” office, whose logo sports a globe ensnared and held in the talons of the US eagle.
Top Secret, Special Intelligence, No Foreigners ... well, except GCHQ probably
PRISM’s own widely displayed logo, a prism dispersing light into a spectrum, has been inferred by commentators to point to the separation of light carriers in optical transmission systems, and thus to hint at PRISM being associated with fibre level interception of Microsoft and other companies’ traffic. But this makes little sense, as immense cryptologic and analytic resources would have to be deployed at interception centres to decrypt and analyse SSL and other layers and to assemble messages from packets carried over divergent routes. They would cost much but deliver little actionable intelligence.
The better interpretation may be more banal. NSA’s codeword central office handed out the latest available batch of codewords, PRISM was selected, and a pretty logo designed to match.
PRISM’s reported costs are so small, it has to be mighty simple.
According to the 41 slide classified PRISM powerpoint prepared for NSA trainees and published by The Guardian, PRISM costs about $20m dollars a year. During 2012, the slides say, 24,005 NSA Sigint reports cited PRISM as a main source. The total number of such reports since the program started in 2007 is said to be 77,000.
Heavy duty sigint surveillance contractors – and the US has hundreds of them collecting and sifting the world’s communications – wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $100m. Want a decent collection system, a few bases, lots of custom signal processors, perhaps a space segment? You're talking $$ billions. NSA’s overall budget is classified, but even excluding dedicated military services it is estimated to be more than $10bn.
In the world of global sigint, $20m is small change. The average cost of each PRISM derived report in 2012 would be $830. This average amount could be little more than agreed payments on agreed scales for the US companies to hand over agreed types of information in response to law enforcement requests, plus a contribution to maintaining specialised interface facilities.
More significantly, PRISM’s numbers are far smaller than some of the companies involved have already disclosed when revealing the number of US law enforcement or government disclosure requests they handle and pass through each year.
Microsoft says that during 2012, they processed 70,665 law enforcement and other government requests for information, mainly for United States agencies. They also admitted disclosing the content of Hotmail and other communications to law enforcement agencies in the United States in 1,544 cases.