The justification for Prism is found in the Patriot Act which was developed under the Bush administration and allowed the US to tap into foreign communications with any citizen in the United States without a search warrant. Obama has expanded this program and placed it under congressional oversight. In order to look at the content of information gathered, NSA officials need to go through a secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) court. FISA is composed of seven federal district judges and the hearings are not public and are classified. They are not adversarial and function as a kind of grand jury.
These revelations have renewed the energy of civil libertarians who see this program as an illegal and unconstitutional encroachment on their fourth amendment rights under the US Constitution. The fourth amendment of the US Constitution reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Nation wide dragnets of citizens against whom no allegation or suspicion of wrongdoing is expressly forbidden. This is precisely the opposite of what the Prism program, in fact, admittedly does! The NSA claims that they are not looking at the raw data, it is just stored and compared with known outside terrorists. Yet, one warrant from a FISA court to Verizon includes literally millions of individual citizens.
Not only is the NSA collecting information on its own citizen, it is also mining data from other countries. Many countries including Canada have expressed concern. Just today, for example, the Globe and Mail ran this story.
Canada’s privacy cops fret over U.S. snooping, to dig deeper
And further, according to the Guardian:
In London, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, was forced to defend the UK's use of intelligence gathered by the US. Other European leaders also voiced concern.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is expected to grill Obama next week, during a much-awaited summit in Berlin. Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner, told the Guardian it was unacceptable for the US authorities to have access to EU citizens' data, and that the level of protection is lower than that guaranteed to US citizens.
Edward Snowden's explosive NSA leaks have US in damage control mode
Below is an interview with Edward Snowden by The Guardian where he explains his rationale.
It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out but this story is a major national and international story requiring substantive and open dialogue among citizens of all democratic countries.