Could This Be How PRISM Technically Works?

A plausible account of the technical and institutional details from a long-time national security reporter.
More

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." 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. 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 website 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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In