PRISM AND BOUNDLESS INFORMANT: IS NSA SURVEILLANCE A THREAT?
By Richard Lempert, Visiting Fellow, Brookings Foundation
Richard O. Lempert, the University of Michigan's Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology emeritus, recently served as Chief Scientist and Basic Research Lead in the Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division of the Science and Technology Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security. In the first paragraph of this well-written article, he asks how concerned Americans should be about their own privacy in view of the revelation of two NSA intelligence gathering programs: PRISM, which monitors internet traffic, and Boundless Informant (BI), a data mining process for telecommunications.
He concludes in this same paragraph that only a handful, those posing a security risk, should feel insecure. For 99% or more of Americans, the BI program seems harmless enough because it only notes calls made to or received from suspected terrorists and records the call's length. This data-mining program analyzes patterns and identifies suspect communication but does not capture voice communication itself. Federal law enforcement agencies can, however, use the BI program to obtain warrants for monitoring of suspect callers.
PRISM, on the other hand, is considerably more problematic for privacy issues; yet its "vacuum cleaner" mode of collection may provide practical rather than legal protection. PRISM captures both metadata and communication content transmitted over the Internet. Unfortunately PRISM captures too much information to be processed and analyzed by humans in a timely manner, thus computers use keywords to search (data mine) the daily collection, hoping to expose potential threats.