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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 USA’s attempts to apprehend and subsequently try the world-renowned whistleblower have thus far proved unsuccessful.

The NSA, PRISM, Snowden: who’s who?

The NSA

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 agency’s website the missions they carry out are “consistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties”…

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 ‘No Such Agency’.

The NSA’s 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

PRISM is the programme that enables the NSA to gather and carry out research using data – 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 site’s 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 “targets” don’t 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 “wire tapping”: 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 “targets”.

During an assignment, the NSA must only survey communication coming from abroad and an analyst’s choice to add another “target” must be founded on “reasonable belief”. Analysts are required to be 51 percent certain that the “target” 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

Edward Snowden is a 30-year-old American IT engineer who lived in Hawaï 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 “America is a fundamentally good country”. 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 “correct the excesses of government”. But the Obama administration has allegedly continued in the same vein.

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