Giant internet surveillance project exposed

Leaked documents have blown the cover of a programme named Prism which allows the US government to spy on internet activity around the world. Should we fear for our freedom?

Q: What is Prism?

A: A project run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), an intelligence service which monitors and decodes communications. Prism is classified as top secret and few had heard of it until last week, when two newspapers – The Guardian and The Washington Post – published leaked documents revealing its existence to the world.

Q: And what do these documents show?

A: That the US government has been collecting information about our online activity with assistance from online giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo for at least six years. A leaked slideshow indicates that the monitored activities include e-mails, videos, photos, logins and chat, among other things. Essentially, the USA is theoretically capable of watching almost anything you do on the internet and accessing any information you share. President Barack Obama confirmed the existence of Prism during a press conference on Saturday (although he dismissed the reporting of it as ‘hype’).

Q: That’s terrifying! So all emails and Google searches are being read by spies?

A: Not literally – there aren’t enough people in the world to monitor online activity as comprehensively as that, and the $20 million cost is too small for the government to be storing all the data they collect. What intelligence services can do is tap the routers which direct information between computers and servers and store that information on a database. Leaked files seem to show that almost three billion pieces of information from around the world were collected this way in a 30-day period ending in March.

Q: Where do Google and Facebook come into this?

A: Collecting the data isn’t always enough: encrypted information sent over the internet appears as an unintelligible jumble which would be no use to an intelligence agency at all. Interpreting the data requires a digital ‘key’, which is held by the companies themselves. The suspicion is that the nine internet companies mentioned in the leaked documents have granted the government access to this key.

Q: What do the companies themselves say?

A: They all vigorously deny that they have given any government ‘direct access’ to their servers and insist that until this week they had not heard of Prism. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even goes so far as to describe the accusations as ‘outrageous’. But there is little doubt that these companies have cooperated with intelligence services to at least some extent – possibly by uploading data onto a separate server and giving the NSA access to that. Twitter is notably absent from the leaked documents.

Q: Are other governments in on the act?

A: The leaked documents suggest that some of the information has been passed on by other governments, including the UK. British Foreign Secretary William Hague refused to comment, saying that the government ‘can’t ever confirm or deny in public what Britain knows about’.

Q: Surely this stuff is illegal?

A: Surprisingly, it’s probably not. The USA has laws protecting intrusion into its own citizens’ private data, but the government is free to spy on foreigners. And Hague called the notion that the UK government had broken the law ‘fanciful nonsense’, saying that information was only gathered through rigorous procedures.

Q: Is it really such a surprise that we’re being spied on, then?

A: Perhaps not. A recent opinion poll suggested that 85% of Americans believe governments and businesses collect information on their internet use without consent, so in many ways this is predictable. But the scale of the programme, the collaboration of online companies and the ease with which governments can apparently monitor data has left many people shocked.

You Decide

  1. Would you be surprised to learn that your online activity was being collected by governments and big companies?
  2. ‘If you are a law-abiding citizen you have nothing to fear... indeed you will never be aware of all the things those agencies are doing.’ Are you convinced by William Hague’s defence of governments which collect citizens’ data?


  1. Make a list of all of the things that you would be happy for the government to know about you. How much more could they learn from reading your Facebook, Google and email accounts?
  2. Hold a class debate on the proposition: ‘Privacy is dead.’ Put it to a vote.

Some People Say...

“Sacrificing privacy is the price you pay for being on the web.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Putting something into a format that prevents unwanted eavesdroppers from understanding it. Writing in code is a type of encryption, for instance. Online, it involves storing information that needs to be converted by an algorithm that isn’t publicly available.
Nine internet companies
Microsoft were the first to sign up in 2007. Since then, Prism has also developed links with Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Paltalk, Youtube, Skype, AOL and Apple.


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