A Surveillance Primer: What Exactly Are We Talking About Regarding the NSA?

greenwald_laptopOne of the reasons why there’s so much hysterical blindness in reaction to NSA “bombshells” issued by Edward Snowden is that very few reporters and writers have adequately explained what’s going on.

So I’d like to take some time to explain in general terms the NSA program that everyone is screaming about.

By the way, I fully realize that the paranoid pro-Snowden crowd will insist that I’m lying or shilling for the government or both. Clearly there’s no way to respond to conspiracy theories other than to demand hard evidence. Beyond that, I can only concur with Charles Johnson who tweeted that many of the pro-Snowden people are deliberately misunderstanding what’s going on to suit their own agenda. I don’t intend to convince any of those people as they’re nestled within their own epistemic cocoons. But I think the summary below will be helpful to the rest of us who aren’t necessarily surveillance experts.

Let’s begin by defining metadata.

Phone metadata: This includes the “call pairs” — the two phone numbers on a call, plus the date, length and duration of the call.

Email metadata: The “to” and “from” email addresses, along with the IP addresses and subject lines. Basically it’s the same information you’d see on the envelope of a postal letter.

Similar metadata is collected for text messages, Facebook DMs and the like. The purpose of metadata is to weed out your cat meme emails, which NSA doesn’t care about nor does it read or retain, and to zero in on real suspects for targeted surveillance (which, as you’ll read below, requires an individual warrant for U.S. persons).

What is “minimization?” This is the procedure NSA uses to safeguard the privacy of American citizens. Part of this process includes the anonymization/encryption of personal information, transforming proper names, for example, into random strings of characters called “designators.” Eichenwald described minimization like so:

If information about specific Americans (or even foreigners inside the United States) is captured, those details must be removed from all records and cannot be shared with any other entity in the government unless it is necessary to understand and interpret related foreign intelligence or to protect lives from criminal threats.

Now for the NSA “bombshells.”


What is it? NSA’s collection of phone call metadata, but it also once included email metadata (see below). One aspect of this program was released by Snowden and Greenwald regarding Verizon phone records, but it’s not nearly the first time we became aware of NSA’s collection of phone metadata. (Here’s a random Google search for pertinent news articles about “NSA metadata collection” between 2001 and 2012.)

Who does it target? Foreign terrorists. Reminder: NSA is solely tasked with gathering foreign intelligence — not domestic criminal investigations or surveillance.

Is this legal? Yes, per the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 215. Opponents argue that NSA is taking the section too far. (Whatever you or I might think of the PATRIOT Act, legal is legal. Snowden himself said, “We’re a nation of laws, not of men.”)

Is the collection of phone metadata constitutional? Generally, yes. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in Smith v Maryland that once you send your data (phone number, etc) to a third party, you’ve relinquished your expectation of privacy because you’re voluntarily giving your data to the phone company.

Are there warrants? Technically, yes. The FISA court (FISC) issues bulk warrants every 90 days. It’s important to note that if NSA or FBI determines probable cause and decides to engage in the targeted surveillance of an American citizen’s phone calls, it must attain an individual warrant from a FISC judge, just as any law enforcement agency would do in a criminal investigation.

Is this Stellar Wind about wiretapping citizens, and can NSA listen to your calls? No. Not without very complicated, multi-layered approvals and individual warrants.

Is there oversight? Yes. Oversight is conducted by FISC, the Justice Department, House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which has existed since 2004. In 2009, the Obama/Holder Justice Department beefed up privacy safeguards following “routine oversight” of the program.

What can you do if you don’t like it? Get rid of your evil, corporate smartphone service and buy pre-paid cellphones (not with your credit card, which stores data that’s far more detailed than any government agency).


What is it? NSA’s collection of email metadata.

Who does it target? Foreign terrorists.

Are there warrants? Yes.

What’s the status of this program? I’m stopping here because, according to documents released by Greenwald, this facet of Stellar Wind was discontinued by the Obama administration in 2011. Greenwald also reported that Stellar Wind “did not include the content of emails.”


What is it? A database management system for internet communications metadata acquired via Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo! and other so-called “tech giant” corporations. PRISM is part of the STELLAR WIND operation. The purpose is to weed out massive amounts of internet metadata in order to subsequently target the communications of potential terrorists.

What is it not? Contrary to some articles, PRISM isn’t a “program” or “operation.” And contrary to Greenwald’s initial reporting, PRISM doesn’t “tap” into corporate servers, nor does PRISM involve “direct access” to those servers.

Is PRISM secret? No. PRISM was publicly authorized by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008. Then-Senator Obama voted for the act.

Who does it target? Foreign terrorists. There are currently 117,675 foreign targets in the database.

Are there warrants? There are FISC subpoenas and warrants for the information.

What about American citizens? According to the FISA Amendments Act, Section 702, Americans can’t be “intentionally targeted” without individual warrants. Any metadata that’s inadvertently collected is encrypted/anonymized and destroyed.

Is there content? Only if an individual warrant is issued by a FISC judge.

Is there oversight? Yes. Oversight is conducted by FISC, the Justice Department, House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and the legal departments of each tech corporation.

What can you do if you don’t like it? Install encryption software like Tor on your computer and email client (warning: this will slow down your internet performance). Stop using free email services. Delete your Facebook account. The pisser is that even if you jump through all of these hoops, you still have to file tax returns, which is another example of the government acquiring your private information. You also might have a bank account or a credit card. You probably have health insurance, too. Each of these outfits, and many more, have far more extensive and intrusive data than NSA.

So I think that covers most of it. There are other foreign intelligence gathering operations, of course, but the above “bombshell” items are central to all of the recent hooplah and garment rending. I can’t emphasize enough how counterproductive, misleading and irresponsible it is to go around screeching about how the government is spying on you or targeting you or following your every keystroke. Unless there’s probable cause and a warrant, it’s not. And understanding what’s really happening free from the fog of outrage is a solid first step toward having a much-needed debate about NSA and FISC based upon rational, reasonable terms. Otherwise, nothing good will come out of this.

I’d like to acknowledge several writers who have done much of the heavy lifting to explain what’s really happening without all of the scare-words and link-bait hyperbole that’s indicative of the pro-Snowden, pro-Greenwald crowd: our own J.M. Ashby, Josh Marshall, Charles Johnson, Kurt Eichenwald and former NSA senior intelligence analyst John Schindler. While I’m here, author James Bamford published two informative pre-9/11 volumes, The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, about both the history of NSA and the precursors to the program outlined above.

Adding… I welcome any reasonable, factual corrections to the above information.

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of BobCesca.com, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.

  • useless eater

    Cesca, has good cause to be concerned about being called a shill. How he could unquestioningly accept the word of proven LIARS is almost beyond understanding.

    “A footnote on page 16 points out that the agency had “substantially
    misrepresented” the extent of its “major collection program” (including
    the harvesting of “internet transactions”) for the third time in less
    than three years. The same set of footnotes attacks the so-called “big
    business records” collection, accusing the agency of using a “flawed
    depiction” of how it used the data to basically fleece the FISA court
    since the program’s inception in 2006.

    Then there’s this pair of concluding sentences, which severely undercut
    anyone’s arguments that the FISA Court is a reliable form of oversight.

    Contrary to the government’s repeated assurances, NSA has been
    repeatedly running queries of the metadata using querying terms that did
    not meet the standard for querying. The Court concluded that this
    requirement had been “so frequently and systemically violated that it
    can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall… regime has
    never functioned effectively.”

    Other pages detail more concerns, including misrepresentation of the methods
    used in 702 collections, which the opinion claims “fundamentally alters the Court’s understanding of the scope of the collection.”"


  • Badgerite

    oops! Install encryption software? Not really much help.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

    Phone metadata includes location. I could go on and on, but the important point here is if some random guy says he knows enough about USG surveillance to produce a primer, it’s BS. No one from the general public knows enough about what programs exist and how they operate to say things like “Unless there’s probable cause and a warrant” the USG isn’t spying on you. Who is this “you” anyway? It is absurd to think that there will not be more revelations, and yes, some blockbusters, about domestic spying. It will take at least months to get to just the middle of any particular program. For instance, PRISM captures audio and video from Skype calls. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/07/nsa-taps-skype-chats-newly-published-snowden-leaks-confirm/. Is that in your primer? We don’t even know how basic terms like “relevant” and “targeted” are defined by the IC. Yet you know Smith v. Maryland allows the government to collect all domestic call metadata? You are a fool.

  • Senor Equis

    Cesca still providing ‘Left’ cover for the NSA I see.

  • nasani

    Great post.

  • D_C_Wilson

    Clearly there’s no way to respond to conspiracy theories other than to demand hard evidence.

    But that’s the beauty of any good conspiracy theory: The complete lack of any hard evidence is itself proof of the conspiracy.

    • nasani


    • Senor Equis

      And the beauty of constant fed gov bootlicking is that you can just call anything outrageous that’s already been revealed as ‘old news’. See Fast and Furious, with the latest victim of Holder’s gun running being shot dead last week

      • D_C_Wilson

        And of course, the other beauty is you can pretend that a program started during the previous administration is the fault of the current attorney general, because, why the fuck not?

  • ASkepticalLiberal

    “Who does it target? Foreign terrorists. Reminder: NSA is solely tasked with gathering foreign intelligence — not domestic criminal investigations or surveillance.”

    No, it targets “foreign adversaries,” which, as we recently learned, means anyone the government wants to monitor. The claim that the EU or the entire population of Brazil are “foreign terrorists” is the sort of thing that I would expect to hear from a rabid Bushie.

    American communications aren’t targeted. They’re just “inadvertently” swept up. Of course they’re not stored or disseminated unless they belong to one of several incredibly broad categories…

    • nasani

      “The claim that the EU or the entire population of Brazil are “foreign terrorists” is the sort of thing that I would expect to hear from a rabid Bushie.”

      Bob Ceska never made that claim! You made the claim and then proceeded to use to attack people who reject your hair on fire nonsense!

      • ASkepticalLiberal

        You’re really quite stupid, aren’t you?

        Cesca said that the program targets “foreign terrorists.” This is not accurate. The program targets “foreign adversaries,” a group that includes the EU and the population of Brazil, among others.

        Please see this enlightening recording of NSA recruiters for more on the definition of “adversary”: https://soundcloud.com/madiha-1/students-question-the-nsa-at

        • http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/ Yastreblyansky

          Not to mention all the “enemies” Bradley Manning turned classified information over to, which surely includes you and me and lots of folks around here. Of course we’re domestic, and I wouldn’t be jabbering online if I was actually scared.

  • ASkepticalLiberal

    “If information about specific Americans (or even foreigners inside the United States) is captured, those details must be removed from all records and cannot be shared with any other entity in the government unless it is necessary to understand and interpret related foreign intelligence or to protect lives from criminal threats.”

    The NSA is allowed to retain and disseminate purely domestic conversations (including attorney-client conversations) ” if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity.”

    Eichenwald’s reference to “protect[ing] lives from criminal threats” is ludicrous. There is no requirement whatsoever that the NSA needs to believe that anyone’s life is in peril. If they hear you discussing a pot deal or an insurance fraud scheme, then their guidelines clearly allow them to retain that information.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Take it up with Eichenwald, then. He’s on Twitter.

      • ASkepticalLiberal

        That’s a joke, right? You cited this as fact. It is not.

        • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

          I didn’t quote “protect[ing] lives from criminal threats”

          • ASkepticalLiberal

            Huh? This is the quote that you used:

            “If information about specific Americans (or even foreigners inside the United States) is captured, those details must be removed from all records and cannot be shared with any other entity in the government unless it is necessary to understand and interpret related foreign intelligence or to protect lives from criminal threats.”

            We must have a misunderstanding.

          • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

            You’re right.

          • ASkepticalLiberal

            Right about what? That we have a misunderstanding? That your column clearly included the quote that I said it did? Or that the quote fundamentally misrepresented the facts?

            Help me out here.

          • nasani

            I think you are right that you are a joke! You demand facts to prove a negative, whereas you make sweeping assertions without backing them up with concrete evidence.

          • Senor Equis

            Russ freakin’ Tice. Who saw an NSA record of one Barack Hussein Obama, Illinois State Senator, 2004. Tell me the national security justification for spying on Obama, if he was not an ex-CIA operative himself, or didn’t have ties to people the NSA was already watching for counterrorist investigations.

            Douglas Hagmann, private investigator who lives in Erie, PA, SWORN AFFIDAVIT issued in Pennsylvania asserting that he overheard a recorded NSA logged file after making a purely domestic phone call to another investigative journalist:


            If Doug’s lying, he loses his private investigator’s license and his livelihood.

            So Cesca and all you other White House hacks — pretending these people don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. There will be many more documenting NSA spying on domestic, dissident and journalist targets.


            Link to the FOIA request reply from NSA is above.

          • nasani

            So, what are you disputing in that statement? If you are disputing his statement why don’t you cite specific and concrete evidence that refutes what Bob Ceska wrote? In other words, cite specific cases/examples where individuals negotiating a dope deal were prosecuted as a result of NSA surveillance.

          • ASkepticalLiberal

            Again, please see linked documents above. They refer to evidence that a crime has been, is currently, or will be committed. Its extremely clear That this extends to all crimes, not merely those that put lives at risk as Eichenwald claimed.

            It’s kind of hard to have an intelligent discussion with people who aren’t familiar with the substance of the revelations.

        • nasani

          I suppose you are the only who deals in facts although you never cite credible sources to support your facts.

          • ASkepticalLiberal

            See above

      • Senor Equis

        and get instantly blocked like everyone else who hammers you on Twitter Bob.

    • nasani

      Cite a credible source, or credible sources to support your assertions. By the way, I have no problem with them using information to apprehend dug dealers and or those engaged in insurance fraud.

      • ASkepticalLiberal

        “Cite a credible source, or credible sources to support your assertions.”

        Will the NSA’s own documents work for you? The relevant information can be found on pages 5 and 6 of the document linked here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/jun/20/exhibit-b-nsa-procedures-document

        “By the way, I have no problem with them using information to apprehend dug dealers and or those engaged in insurance fraud.”

        Not a big Fourth Amendment fan, huh? And I’ll bet you consider yourself to be a liberal…

        • Senor Equis

          Soon to be amended as ‘I have no problem with them [NSA] using information to round up illegal gun owning cracker redneck bitter clingers’.

          Tread carefully NSA worshipping progs. That’s where all of this is headed.

  • ASkepticalLiberal

    “Are there warrants? Technically, yes. The FISA court (FISC) issues bulk warrants every 90 days.”

    Nonsense. There is no such thing as a “bulk warrant” in our system. The Fourth Amendment clearly requires that warrants target specific persons, places, and things. What you are calling a “bulk warrant” has another name: a general warrant. General warrants were one of the reasons that we had a revolution in this country.

    Even if we accept the notion that these warrants are targeting Verizon and not its millions of customers, it’s still not a warrant. Why? The Fourth Amendment very, very clearly establishes the standard of evidence as probable cause. FISC orders merely require that the government state that it believes that the information is relevant to an authorized investigation.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Smith v Maryland clearly states that metadata collection doesn’t require a warrant. But they get one anyway.

      • ASkepticalLiberal

        Smith v. Maryland “clearly” states that a Pen register that records numbers dialed is not a search under the Fourth Amendment. It does not state that the government can collect any data as long as it calls it “metadata.”

        If you actually look at the decision, it’s clear that one factor that led the court to allow this sort of collection was the belief that the data in question was of a very limited nature. Given the fact that we now know how much metadata can reveal about a target’s activities, it’s far from clear that these programs would pass judicial review.

        In any case, this has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not these are warrants. They quite clearly are not.

        • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

          Pen register is the same as call metadata collection.

          Re: “a target’s activities” — pursuing a target requires an individual warrant.

          • ASkepticalLiberal

            Sorry for the delayed response– Internet was dodgy:

            In his majority opinion in Smith, Justice Blackmun wrote:

            “In applying the Katz analysis to this case, it is important to begin by specifying precisely the nature of the state activity that is challenged.”

            In Smith, the nature of the activity was this: Civilian law enforcement officers installed a device at the phone company that recorded the numbers dialed by the plaintiff.

            In allowing this activity, Blackmun emphasized the limited information that could be gleaned from such actions:

            “”Indeed, a law enforcement official could not even determine from the use of a pen register whether a communication existed. These devices do not hear sound. They disclose only the telephone numbers that have been dialed – a means of establishing communication. Neither the purport of any communication between the caller and the recipient of the call, their identities, nor whether the call was even completed is disclosed by pen registers.”

            The “nature of the state activity” in the current situation is very different. We have a branch of the US military collecting massive amounts of metadata on the entire population. As many people have pointed out, technology that didn’t exist in 1979 (e.g. social network analysis software) allows the government to use this data to arrive at a chillingly detailed understanding of a citizen’s day-to-day life, especially when it is combined with all of the other metadata that the NSA is collecting.

            Can an argument be made that this sort of activity is covered by the Smith ruling? Sure. Is it the slam dunk that you’re presenting it to be? Absolutely not.

            That’s why we have courts– real adversarial courts that consider the relevant facts: to consider these issues. Unfortunately, Obama has followed Bush’s example and used a range of tactics to prevent courts from doing their job.

          • alwaysthink

            In 1979 and even before all telephone companies sent a call detail bill that included the number calling and the number called each month. And those meta records were often used by law enforcement with a court order to catch bad guys.

            How dumb to you think we are?

          • Senor Equis

            No, it’s NOT you liar.

      • Senor Equis

        This is the entire horseshit foundation of Bob’s position — citing a 1979 court ruling that apparently is still the guiding precedent after more than TWENTY YEARS of cellphones being in existence and used to track people by both law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Hey Bob why don’t you cite a horse and buggy SCOTUS ruling regarding GPS in cars while you’re at it? Modern smartphones log a thousand times more ‘metadata’ than old landline point to point who to whom calls.

        Besides that Bob also like other lame defenders of the NSA pretends stop and frisk and 1979 SCOTUS rulings are more applicable than more recent rulings saying local cops must obtain a specific warrant prior to slapping a GPS device on a car.

  • 624LC .

    Thank you for this! It seems completely hopeless to get anything comprehensive and well sourced from other sites. DKos is balls to the wall emo and Balloon Juice is busy digging around the goal posts in order to move them out of the park – now apparently Snowden is an “effect”, a conversation starter. Unlike last week, when he was a Paul Revere or MLK, or whatever…
    Keep up the great work

  • Sabreen60

    Great article. I keep hearing that the FISA court is just a “rubber stamp” and that unlike other courts, the only side that the FISA court hears is the Government’s side. Can you address this. I know the guy “Jim” on the Stephanie Miller show always says this about the FISA court.

    • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

      The Chief Justice appoints members (the members are culled from the pool of federal district judges) of the FISA court. That is a cause for concern because the CJ is John Roberts, and we already know how much Republicans care about civil liberties.


    • nasani

      The issue of who appoints the FISA Court should be a separate issue that people who don’t like how the court is constituted or functions should address to Congress. Again my bottom line is that I have not seen any concrete evidence that NSA or FISC is violating the rights of Americans, All I read are suppositions, speculations, and future potential for abuses,

  • FlipYrWhig

    The greatest confusion/disservice introduced into the whole thing was the way Snowden focused on “you.” Paraphrasing now, “If I wanted to I could find out everything about you,” see your thoughts as you type, all of that. That sounds highly alarming. But who’s “you”? As this piece helps to show, “you” isn’t everyone, “you” is explicitly “someone on whom surveillance has been ordered by a court.” I think there are genuine issues regarding the FISA Court and its role, whether collecting and storing metadata runs afoul of the 4th Amendment, what kinds of rights to privacy exist in a digitally networked world, all of that. But the hyperbolic way the initial story was treated makes me feel like I’ve been bait-and-switched.

    • FlipYrWhig

      Also, Snowden is very locked into the idea that the checks and balances and assurances about minimization and such are only “procedural,” meaning that what the agencies say they’re doing now, even if you believe them, could easily get much worse, more intrusive, more sweeping, etc. But that’s what the law is: procedures. Worry about the government capriciously disregarding the law in this case would seem to raise A LOT of other worries, some of which are squarely in tinfoil hat territory, like The Government taking away all guns or declaring martial law and rounding up the citizenry for their own good.

      • ChrisAndersen

        This really does seem to be a point of confusion for a lot of people. You listen to them talk and you begin to realize that they seem to think there is some area of law that is separate from government and is thus free from the evils that governments can do.

        Law *is* government.

        • fass52

          I’m not pro-Snowden, but there is a reason why they really want to put him in jail yet this guy who writes the article isn’t talking about that at all, and he assumes that the humans that occupy these positions are all little angels and can not be bought out or coerced by evil intentions. He also does not accept the fact that humans carry on their day to day work with their political beliefs on board. Nice job putting you sheep back to “sheep” zzzzzzzzzzzz..

      • ASkepticalLiberal

        I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that it was normal for courts to make sweeping decisions in secret after hearing from only one side. I didn’t realize that it was normal for senators to be reduced to issuing vague warnings about disturbing developments without being able to discuss the details because they’re afraid they might be prosecuted.

        It’s almost as if some liberals have reasoned that: A) We don’t like the tea party; B) The tea party rails against the government; C) It’s our obligation to support anything the government does.

        Don’t you realize that these procedures completely cut out the most important force in a democracy: the electorate?

        • rmrd

          In a grand jury, isn’t the DA the only one who presents information. There is no opportunity for the accused to present a counter argument. Isn’t this based on the same procedure?

    • nabsentia23

      It’s not only that, but Snowden was exaggerating when he made these statements. Yes, government surveillance is vast, but it’s still finite.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      “You” is absolutely one of the scare-words.

    • Senor Equis

      “someone on whom surveillance has been ordered by a court.”

      Any group of FISA judges, even Republican appointees, who have a track record of seeing no individual right to keep and bear arms in the 2nd cannot be trusted to safeguard the 4th. They produce blank cheques for ‘metadata’ that reveals intimate aspects of every member of Congress who uses a Verizon phone (i.e. who’s screwing whom).


      But as Bob Cesca’s idol Eric Schmidt would say, maybe you’re just doing something you shouldn’t be doing anyway if you’re subject to White House blackmail (per Russ Tice). The Verizon blank check warrant is outrageous enough, but far worse things are going to come out and make Cesca look like a complete bootlicker.

      To those who want to call me a ‘cracker’, molon labe. Good luck with your ‘federal militias’ in Civil War 2.0. You’ll need it.

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    Well done, Bob! This was sorely needed to calm the waters, so to speak.

    One might wonder, however, where all the Glennbots have gone.

    • Draxiar

      They’re following in the wake of Snowden to China and Venezuela because those countries have most excellent human rights records and the information flows from them like the chocolate waterfall in Willy Wonka’s factory.

      • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

        FTW, Draxiar!

  • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

    But who will stand and die on the slippery slope?

  • missliberties

    The Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board conducts a day-long workshop with experts, academics and advocacy organizations regarding surveillance programs operated pursuant the USA PATRIOT Act.

    You can watch this workshop on CSpan. They discuss how things work and how to manage and maintain the balance between privacy and security. All sides are represented.

    • Senor Equis

      I wish they’d have such a workshop in Texas or another Constitutional carry state. That way the NSA reps can be reminded of what will happen if they cooperate and use their agency to blackbag/round up dissidents.

  • http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/ Yastreblyansky

    Politically I want you to be right. In point of fact I understand that you’re right about the phone metadata collection. But I’ve never seen it said that Prism collects only metadata and not message content–what’s your source for that?

    • nabsentia23

      There are links in this article. Please use them.

      • http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/ Yastreblyansky

        I’m not seeing it; The CBS news link is just an unsourced denial of what the Guardian (and the stupid PowerPoint) claimed. Eichenwald merely explains 702, which clearly allows (foreign) content to be collected, None of the other links contains anything relevant as far as I can tell. I’m probably stupid, but help!

        • Senor Equis

          Eichenwald should come down to Texas or Utah and attend an open carry demo outside the gates of one of these fusion centers. Just to be reminded of what unlimited surveillance is headed for.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Content for U.S. persons can be inadvertently collected, but it’s encrypted, minimized and destroyed.

  • KABoink_after_wingnut_hacker

    Great article Bob!
    I only wish that all of our media had this depth of understanding about the issue. Then they might see these so called “bombshells” as the non-event they really are.

    • Marlon Medina

      Unfortunately, there will always be those you cannot convince with ANY amount of factual data (see: people who glean ALL of their information from Fox News).

      • KABoink_after_wingnut_hacker

        Yeah, you are right.
        And after Greenwald’s self-serving nonsense is in the loop it’s hard to get anyone’s attention to turn off the misinformation and hype.
        You can’t un-ring a bell.

      • Senor Equis

        Unfortunately, there is a huge number of people who will blindly trust their government no matter how much potential for blackmail even the admitted things like the so-called ‘warrant’ (null and void toilet paper) issued by the lawless FISA judges to scoop up data (including presumably the GPS coordinates for every cellphone plus the calls to escort services, mistresses for members of Congress/senior Pentagon officers) from a billion Verizon calls a day.

  • Draxiar

    Thank you for this compilation, Bob. With all the information out there on this it’s hard to keep it all straight!

    • Hugo Boss

      Well Done.

      However, my understanding is PRISM is not a database. It’s a software interface that lets you access various other databases.

      Kurt Eichenwald described it this way.

      “First, the much-ballyhooed PRISM program is not a program and not a
      secret, and anyone who says it is should not be trusted because they
      don’t know what they’re talking about. PRISM is the name for the
      government computer system that is used to handle the
      foreign-intelligence data collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

      Marc Ambinder talked about the many databases and tools the NSA uses this way

      “So: An analyst sits down at a desk. She uses a tool, like PRISM, to
      analyze information collected and deposited in a database, like
      CONTRAOCTAVE. Then she uses another tool, perhaps CPE (Content
      Preparation Environment), to write a report based on the analysis. That
      report is stored in ANOTHER database, like MAUI. MAUI is a database for
      finished NSA intelligence products. Anchory is an intelligence
      community-wide database for intelligence reports”


      • Hugo Boss

        My speculation is that what PRISM does is it manages permission rights to many, many databases. If I’m an NSA analyst, perhaps I’m working on nuclear proliferation. My guess is that I would have access and permission rights to databases that contain nuclear intel and reports. Let’s also say my parents grew up in Spain’s Basque region and I start mucking around in the databases that contain information on Spanish Diplomats or the ETA terrorist group, that might ring some bells would it not? I would probably need to explain why I need that access for my work.

      • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

        I think you’re right. I’ll revise.