The Technology Behind the NSA’s Surveillance Spy Game

By now, most people have heard about a chap called Edward Snowden and his contribution to society. What everyone might not realize, though, is the technology that the National Security Agency (NSA) actually uses and both the dangers and benefits that lie behind it. Whenever a country is caught with their hands in the cookie jar it’s bad, but when a country is caught with a whole pile of stashed cookies (excuse the pun) it changes the way people think, and seems to confirm that the government is not necessarily as transparent and honest as we, and everyone else, would like.

What the tech nerds at the NSA have used to investigate individuals is something called PRISM. It is a surveillance program designed to let the government obtain, with permission, all kinds of neatly organized personal information from big firms such as Facebook and Microsoft to complement other information that they get from the Internet, and use this to track down potential enemies of the state. Many large companies deny giving more information than is required by law, but there is no way to be sure of the extent of the information flow between the two parties. The controversy lies in the fact that the government wants all the data it can get its hands on, and is legally entitled to it; however, these firms claim that they don’t provide them with general data, rather that it has to be specific requests on certain groups or individuals.

What is important to bear in mind is that the PRISM program is constructed to only collect data from people believed to be, with 51 percent probability, foreign nationals operating outside the US (this leaves a 49 percent margin for error.) This practice, combined with the leaked information by Snowden about the government tapping into EU representatives’ phones and bugging conference rooms, might have put a strain on international relations, as such activities are often greeted by censure when revealed.

The actual danger with the PRISM technology lies with the identification of a potential suspect, which leads to him or her being monitored more closely. This in turn means that the NSA can use what is known as a “three-hop query,” which entitles them to monitor everyone he or she’s been communicating with and then everyone they’ve been communicating with. It could create a snowball effect where potentially thousands of people, US citizens and foreigners alike, that have never heard of suspect number one, are being monitored for no reason in the name of national security.

The PRISM program is only known to the public because of a former NSA employee that decided to blow the whistle. It may lead us to question how many more similar schemes are operational, what kind of information they gather and on whom.