Could This Be How PRISM Technically Works?

A plausible account of the technical and institutional details from a long-time national security reporter.
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National security reporter Marc Ambinder, who has long been known for his contacts within the intelligence community (he used to work here at The Atlantic), just tweeted what seems like a plausible explanation for how PRISM might function.

His account resolves what has been a remarkably strange situation: Namely, that the government has basically acknowledged the program, yet the capabilities ascribed to PRISM seem incompatible with the full-throated denials of the technology companies who are supposedly working with the government. 

The key sticking point was whether or not the government had "direct access" or, as the Washington Post put it, whether the government was "tapping directly" into servers at Google, Facebook, etc. 

Here's Ambinder's reporting:

On the "no direct access"--[content providers]* push to a separate server the subset of accounts that the FISC order covers; NSA monitors them in real time. 
Let's say court order says "all Yahoo accounts in Pakistan" Yahoo would push those accounts to the server; NSA could watch them in real time. They'd try & figure who & where the incoming emails were coming from. US persons data minimized automatically if possible (often it's not). 
If they're up on a Pak bad guy email and someone in Denver sends that account an email saying "I need more explosives," NSA notifies FBI via a Guardian tip. Then FBI opens prelim investigation to determine if the Denver person is a bad guy & takes over. Of course, to ID the person sending the email to Pakistan, analysis of US persons email might be required. Incidental targeting happens now. And that's how it works. Basically.

* Ambinder originally tweeted that it was ISPs pushed to a separate server, but corrected himself in this tweet. He has also noted that he assumes the court orders are narrower than "all Yahoo accounts in Pakistan." 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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