(Un)Lawful Intercept and the PRISM Scandal
The news that a widespread and full-scale data mining operation, dubbed PRISM, has been in effect for almost a decade came as something of a shock last week when a whistleblower divulged the NSA program.
Many people expressed outrage and dismay that data was being collected and stored by the NSA. However, such efforts have been in effect since the beginning of the media-age. From the earliest telecommunication to more modern data networks, lawful intercept of data and media has been part of the justice system.
The concept of using Internet data for criminal investigation is known as lawful intercept. Organizations tasked with monitoring criminal communications rely heavily on the performance and accuracy of lawful intercept (LI) systems to analyze the flow of digital messages across networks. Missing a single stream of data could prevent prosecuting a crime, stopping a terrorist attack, or complying with government regulations. How do we as a society balance privacy, with need-to-know criminal information, with the obvious advantages and convenience of a communication network we’ve grown to depend on as much as water and power.
Data mining occurs daily to you as an Internet user – how else do you think they target market you on the right side of your Facebook page? NSA program aside, your daily footprint on the Web is being monitored and tracked heavily by various corporations. Granted, they are using the information to advertise more accurately. But the mechanism and collection are fundamentally the same.
The revelation again exposes the open nature of the Internet – it’s an inherently trusting system of communication, where servers freely share information with other servers as a matter of course. Actively preventing this information exchange is antithetical to how the Internet – and IP specifically – operates.
It also exposes how little people understand the unprotected nature of the Internet what it provides – network communications. We take it for granted so much that we assume all the details have been worked out. The Internet and the vast network of communication it provides as it exists today is a pretty recent development, and our society hasn’t really had time to address all of the ramifications of its use.