Michael Walsh writes at the New York Post (h/t Instapundit):
The thing is, the Prism program is just the tip of the iceberg. The Associated Press reports:
As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, the courts have held that, while the contents of phone conversation are private, the records — who called whom, when, from where and for how long — of such calls are not.
What makes the news scary are the revelations of what else Team Obama’s been up to. Follow the bouncing scandal ball:
* On Benghazi, the administration has simply clammed up, keeping suspicions alive that there’s much more to this story. A handful of intrepid reporters have bucked the tide, but others have stopped asking why no help was sent and where President Obama was that night. Because . . .
* In clear violation of the First Amendment, the administration — allegedly angered about national-security leaks — seized phone records from the AP and Fox News in a what looks like a transparent attempt to put the fear of God into them and keep others incuriously toeing the party line, which mostly amount to: Trust us. But can we? Consider . . .
* The strange goings-on at the Environmental Protection Agency, where recently-departed chief Lisa Jackson was using a fictitious e-mail account in order to communicate privately without all those pesky “transparency” requirements. How widespread is this practice? What to make of word that Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was also using “secondary” e-mail accounts?
* Then came the IRS bombshell — something every taxpaying American can relate to. That a supposedly neutral collection agency with powers far beyond what we entrust to law enforcement would cheerfully target Tea Party and other righty groups for special scrutiny is the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. And although the IRS has tried to blame “rogue elements” in its Cincinnati office, whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork to point the finger directly at the White House.
All this adds up to a perfect storm of mistrust, now exacerbated by the fears of the surveillance state that has mushroomed since the panicky post-9/11 “reforms.” Thus Americans now fear a culture of suspicion among top law-enforcement officials, who treat more than 300 million overwhelmingly law-abiding Americans as potential criminals, subject to snoops and pat-downs.
And when that leviathan falls down on the job — as it did in failing to spot the Tsarnaev brothers — then the trade-off between liberty and security becomes a very bad bargain indeed.
No wonder sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” are suddenly soaring.
But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.
Americans who disapprove of the government reading their emails have more to worry about from a different and larger NSA effort that snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis.
* * *Tapping into those cables allows the NSA access to monitor emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more. It takes powerful computers to decrypt, store and analyze all this information, but the information is all there, zipping by at the speed of light.
"You have to assume everything is being collected," said Bruce Schneier, who has been studying and writing about cryptography and computer security for two decades.
The New York Times disclosed the existence of this effort in 2005. In 2006, former AT&T technician Mark Klein revealed that the company had allowed the NSA to install a computer at its San Francisco switching center, a key hub for fiber optic cables.* * *
The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified. But former U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer.
That means Americans' personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can't access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.
The government doesn't automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.
What's unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data. That is significant because the U.S. someday will have a new enemy. Two decades from now, the government could have a trove of American emails and phone records it can tap to investigative whatever Congress declares a threat to national security.* * *Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream. If eavesdroppers spot a suspicious email among the torrent of data pouring into the United States, analysts can use information from Internet companies to pinpoint the user.
With Prism, the government gets a user's entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property.
Once the NSA has an inbox, it can search its huge archives for information about everyone with whom the target communicated. All those people can be investigated, too.
That's one example of how emails belonging to Americans can become swept up in the hunt.
In that way, Prism helps justify specific, potentially personal searches. But it's the broader operation on the Internet fiber optics cables that actually captures the data, experts agree.
"I'm much more frightened and concerned about real-time monitoring on the Internet backbone," said Wolf Ruzicka, CEO of EastBanc Technologies, a Washington software company. "I cannot think of anything, outside of a face-to-face conversation, that they could not have access to."
One unanswered question, according to a former technology executive at one of the companies involved, is whether the government can use the data from Prism to work backward.
For example, not every company archives instant message conversations, chat room exchanges or videoconferences. But if Prism provided general details, known as metadata, about when a user began chatting, could the government "rewind" its copy of the global Internet stream, find the conversation and replay it in full?
That would take enormous computing, storage and code-breaking power. It's possible the NSA could use supercomputers to decrypt some transmissions, but it's unlikely it would have the ability to do that in volume. In other words, it would help to know what messages to zero in on.
Whether the government has that power and whether it uses Prism this way remains a closely guarded secret.