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At the start of June British broadsheet The Guardian revealed that the NSA (National Security Agency) had asked for millions of phone records from telecommunications company Verizon to be handed over.
The following day, both The Guardian and the American daily The Washington Post printed in-depth details of a surveillance programme known as PRISM, which is run by the NSA. Their source? One Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee who was at the time, hiding in Hong Kong. He went public about his identity on June 9, then moved from Hong Kong to Russia on 23 June. There, with his US passport cancelled, he had to remain in the diplomatic no-man's-land of the airport's transit zone. With US authorities desperate to get their hands on the whistleblower and plug the embarrassing leaks, Snowden applied to more than 20 countries for asylum. Despite Washington's protests Russia granted him temporary asylum.
The USAâs attempts to apprehend and subsequently try the world-renowned whistleblower have thus far proved unsuccessful.
The NSA, or National Security Agency, is one of 15 intelligence agencies in the US and is responsible for protecting and encrypting confidential government communications. It is also in charge of the collection, encoding and transmission of all types of electronic messages coming from foreign countries. According to the agencyâs website the missions they carry out are âconsistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil libertiesââŠ
The NSA was created by former president Harry Truman at the height of the Cold War in 1952. It was born out of the reorganisation of the military agency AFSA (Armed Forces Security Agency) which combined Navy and Air Force encoding techniques. For several years it remained a secret agency, to the point that American journalists nicknamed it âNo Such Agencyâ.
The NSAâs exact figures and turnover are classified but the latest estimations by the CSBA, an American NGO concerned with defense strategies and military questions, attribute the NSA with a budget of 10 billion dollars.
PRISM is the programme that enables the NSA to gather and carry out research using data â or rather, metadata - issued by nine Internet companies that are used daily by millions of people the world over: Microsoft; Google; Yahoo!; Facebook; Youtube; Skype; AOL; Apple; and PalTalk. The NSA does not so much examine the site, as survey each siteâs content: who is talking to whom; from when; where; using which software; on which theme; IP addresses visited, etc. Authorised by federal judges responsible for overseeing the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the collection of this type of data does not require a mandate.
NSA employees working on specific âtargetsâ donât only use PRISM. One of the documents provided by Edward Snowden and published in the Washington Post draws attention to Upstream, a programme which gathers data from âwire tappingâ: both inside fibre optic wires and other information infrastructure.
One of the principal research practices used by PRISM and Upstream is the use of a simplified version of the theory of six degrees of separation. According to The Guardian, this has been reduced to two degrees. This means the NSA are authorised to study the data of somebody who is conversing with another person who is in contact with one of their âtargetsâ.
During an assignment, the NSA must only survey communication coming from abroad and an analystâs choice to add another âtargetâ must be founded on âreasonable beliefâ. Analysts are required to be 51 percent certain that the âtargetâ is a foreign citizen who is outside of the USA at the time the information is collected. This definition is sufficiently vague to cause a debate.
Edward Snowden is a 30-year-old American IT engineer who lived in HawaĂŻ before taking refuge in Hong Kong in May, followed by Russia in June. He worked at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), then left to work at the NSA in 2009. There, he worked for different NSA subcontractors such as Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.
In a Guardian interview from his hideout in Hong Kong, Snowden explained that his decision to reveal the information was neither a sudden decision, nor one designed to harm the US, claiming that âAmerica is a fundamentally good countryâ. Furthermore, he claimed to have held on to the information, without divulging it, from 2008 until now, in the hope that the Obama administration would âcorrect the excesses of governmentâ. But the Obama administration has allegedly continued in the same vein.