Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board Report on PRISM publishes; reveals split


An important report came out today from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the board that was appointed to be a privacy watchdog for the US government surveillance programs. The newly released report covers PRISM and other Section 702 surveillance programs conducted under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The report is complex, and provides important benchmarking on how PRISM and “upstream” surveillance programs work. In this aspect, the report is worth reading and understanding. In describing PRISM, for example, the report explains the process: 

“In PRISM collection, the government sends a selector, such as an email address, to a United States-based electronic communications service provider, such as an Internet service provider (“ISP”), and the provider is compelled to give the communications sent to or from that selector to the government. PRISM collection does not include the acquisition of telephone calls. The National Security Agency (“NSA”) receives all data collected through PRISM. In addition, the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) each receive a select portion of PRISM collection.”

The report also has a useful and illuminating description of upstream collection, which is well worth the time to read. (Page 7 of the report).

The report’s recommendations, however, are what have proven to be more controversial. While recognizing the need for some changes in how US surveillance under Section 702 is conducted, ultimately the board did not recommend fundamental reform of the system, as many, including in Congress, have urged. The independent board’s members split on the issue, as can be seen in the details of the report. The lack of a strong resulting set of recommendations for reform has caused the civil liberties and privacy community to characterize the report as weak at best. WPF appreciates the technical explanations of the programs, but we had certainly hoped for more. The report is nevertheless important to read and digest for any who are interested in these issues, in particular for its descriptions of the Section 702 programs like PRISM.

Below is a link to the report, analysis, and background reporting. There are many different views of this report as might be expected with a lengthy, controversial, and complex report. We are not endorsing any views other than our own by providing these links.

Documents and more information: