Prism and Boundless Informant: Is NSA Surveillance a Threat?
By Richard Lempert, Visiting Fellow, Brookings Foundation
Reviewed by John Handley, Vice President, American Diplomacy
Richard O. Lempert, the University of Michigan’s Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology emeritus, recently served as Chief Scientist and Basic Research Lead in the Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division of the Science and Technology Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security. In the first paragraph of this well-written article, he asks how concerned Americans should be about their own privacy in view of the revelation of two NSA intelligence gathering programs: PRISM, which monitors internet traffic, and Boundless Informant (BI), a data mining process for telecommunications.
He concludes in this same paragraph that only a handful, those posing a security risk, should feel insecure. For 99% or more of Americans, the BI program seems harmless enough because it only notes calls made to or received from suspected terrorists and records the call’s length. This data-mining program analyzes patterns and identifies suspect communication but does not capture voice communication itself. Federal law enforcement agencies can, however, use the BI program to obtain warrants for monitoring of suspect callers.
PRISM, on the other hand, is considerably more problematic for privacy issues; yet its “vacuum cleaner” mode of collection may provide practical rather than legal protection. PRISM captures both metadata and communication content transmitted over the Internet. Unfortunately PRISM captures too much information to be processed and analyzed by humans in a timely manner, thus computers use keywords to search (data mine) the daily collection, hoping to expose potential threats.
Although Dr. Lempert believes these surveillance programs do help thwart terrorism and currently pose little if any problem to the vast majority of Americans, he does caution that surveillance technology has created “an infrastructure of tyranny” that provides the potential for a small group in power to control and restrict the freedoms of a larger group. As observed in various other countries, those in power often use their resources to suppress dissent and preserve their power.
For the United States, the author opines that the probable abuser of the public trust thinks misuse of surveillance technology is not the federal government but rather state governments and private contractors. He then goes to some length to explain this concern. I encourage the reader to visit the article for an interesting analysis of how the private sector currently and increasingly uses surveillance technology to help “manage” our lives.
Dr. Lempert concludes this very informative article with a warning to be wary of what tools we are creating in the “war against terrorism” and to ensure that our efforts are military in nature. Just as the posse comitatus law prevents the military from enforcing domestic criminal law, this same law “should be clearly extended and strictly applied to the NSA, the CIA and similar organizations, including some aspects of the work done by the FBI….” Regardless of motives for infringement, privacy, the author notes, remains a cherished human value.