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Examining spy agency’s high-tech shenanigans

My inbox has been receiving a number of emails from readers asking me to explain PRYSM, the recently-revealed surveillance program undertaken by the U.S. government. 

The facts are that The Washington Post and The Guardian broke the story in May and since then the news media has been saturated with reporting.  My sources are the same as any other citizen reading the news, though I have taken time to seek out and read some technical white papers, transcripts of testimony before the U.S. Congress, etc.  There have often been rumors of espionage, but it is highly unusual for hard evidence to confirm it and spell out the detail.  In this space I will mention some of the highlights as reported in the media.

A whistleblower and former contractor employee for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) revealed the government is spying on us on an unprecedented massive scale.  The project named PRYSM is designed to scoop up phone records, email, security cameras, and everything else it can tap into.  Allegedly the system harvests every piece of data from Google, FaceBook, Yahoo, and others.  These and other companies have vehemently denied they are cooperating.

One theory a lot of technical people are buying into is that the NSA has put in place a number of fiber optic beam splitters on the internet backbone to siphon off all the data passing by.  A company named Narus makes high-end computer network hardware, and their brochure includes a fiber optic beam splitting prism.  I suppose the name PRYSM could just be a coincidence?  If the NSA is tapping into the internet backbone then this could explain all the denials from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. that they are cooperating.  If their fiber optic connections to the internet backbone are being tapped outside their networks and without their knowledge, then their claims of not being willing participants in spying on us could be the truth.

These three-letter government agencies are supposed to be prohibited by law from spying within the United States.  One fact on which almost all the technical people agree is that because of the international nature of the internet any agency spying on the internet backbone traffic has no technical means to filter out domestic traffic, thus they would necessarily have to be breaking some laws.

As of this writing, the whistleblower Edward Snowden has been charged by U.S. prosecutors in a sealed indictment, possibly under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  This is going to be interesting to watch because this is one law that is so broadly written that you, I, and everyone else who as ever blocked a web site from displaying a pop-up ad has violated the terms of use of that web site and thus committed a felony under U.S. law.

Also shrouded in secrecy is the new data storage center the NSA has constructed to store the information they obtain.  The size of the data storage capacity of the NSA data center is alleged to be five zetabites, a number that defies most people’s comprehension.  It is said the entire holdings of the Library of Congress amount to seven terabytes (yet another statistic nobody really knows for sure).  If so, then the new NSA data center would have the capacity to store a billion times that amount of data.  This is worth repeating: 5 zetabytes is around one billion times larger than the Library of Congress!

Occasional Reporter contributor Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at

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