One morning in 2012, a security analyst named Kevin arrived at his office. Immediately, he sensed that something was awry as one of many tasked with monitoring a top secret U.S. surveillance program in Afghanistan. Kevin was used to activity, but something about the start of his shift was different. A colleague soon walked over and announced, we're about to kill the man in the purple hat during Kevin's employment.
The U.S. had aggressively expanded its espionage capabilities in the Middle East. Officials realized that the PRISM program, which they previously used to monitor online communications between suspected terrorists, simply wasn't enough.
Now they were using balloons equipped with specialized software to watch everyone and their every move. Kevin's team had reason to believe the man in the purple hat was a terrorist. For weeks, his job was to spy on this target's daily activities near their desks.
Kevin and his fellow analysts hovered around a screen.
They were watching live stream footage of that man in the Purple Hearts final moments.
But something felt off to Kevin. The man on screen didn't behave the same way the terrorist had in the past. Then it dawned on him this was not the right target. Kevin wasn't sure if he'd reach his supervisor in time to call off the attack. Panicked. One thing became very clear to Kevin that day.
American surveillance systems had gone from being socially invasive to determining who would live and die.
Welcome to Conspiracy Theories, a Spotify original from past every Monday and Wednesday, we dig into the complicated stories behind the world's most controversial events and search for the truth on Carter Roy.
And I'm Molly Brandenberg. And neither of us are conspiracy theorists, but we are open minded, skeptical and curious.
Don't get us wrong. Sometimes the official version is the truth, but sometimes it's not.
You can find episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Spotify originals from Parkhurst for free on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
This is our second episode on PRISM, one of the many surveillance programs authorized by U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They claim that PRISM was exclusively designed to capture the Internet data of suspected terrorists.
But that might not have been the case last time we followed the story of Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on PRISM in 2013. He had proof that the intelligence community was collecting personal data on nearly every American. And yet in 2013, Congress voted to reinstate an act used to justify programs like PRISM for another six years. Today, we'll dive into a few conspiracy theories surrounding PRISM. We'll investigate if companies like Google and Apple offered up their data for profit.
We'll also examine whether domestic surveillance was effective for stopping terrorism or if it was a gratuitous attempt to peek into American's private lives. And finally, we'll see if the U.S. government has pushed surveillance to new extremes by exploiting artificial intelligence to predict the future. We have all that and more coming up. Stay with us. This episode is brought to you by Faneuil's sportsbook, don't just watch college basketball, get in the action and shoot your shot with the fan to a sports book app.
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In 2007, President George W. Bush launched the PRISM program, it authorized the National Security Agency or the NSA to gather vast amounts of Internet data on suspected terrorists. Allegedly, their information came from nine different tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft. But when Edward Snowden brought everything to light in 2013, the tech industry claimed they had zero knowledge of the operation.
Which brings us to conspiracy theory. Number one, tech companies knowingly participated in the PRISM program and others like it for financial incentives to fully understand how these nine tech companies got involved.
We have to go back to 2002. That year, the government allegedly tested early models of the program on one Internet provider, AT&T. That's summer, Mark Klein was a technician at his corporate office in San Francisco. It had been a humdrum job until one afternoon when an agent from the NSA showed up to speak with Klein's boss.
At first, Klein didn't think much of it, but a few months later, he heard about an unusual change in his office building. A new door without a handle had been installed on the sixth floor. He traced the cables leading out of the room and realized they led to the seventh floor where AT&T handled its Internet traffic.
These cables ran through a device called a splitter. This piece of hardware extracted information from the fiber optic cords and duplicated it, sending it to another computer. Klein did more digging and found that the government was copying data from AT&T servers and using it for their own purposes.
Klein was furious but kept quiet until 2005. That year, The New York Times published a separate story about the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance tactics. Klein saw an opportunity to pounce. In 2006, he joined a class action lawsuit against AT&T.
The AT&T CEO appeared before a congressional committee when one of the senators asked if the company had provided customer information to the government. His responses were vague. He kept repeating that AT&T had always complied with the law.
The panel pressed for more details, but AT&T remained tight lipped despite Klein's best efforts.
The trial was stopped from moving forward. Then, in 2008, George W. Bush signed an immunity bill which excused AT&T for cooperating. Klein had to drop the case entirely.
But that wasn't the only relevant bill the president passed, he also signed the Protect America Act in 2007. This legislation technically authorized PRISM, putting it into action, and it expanded the authority of the NSA instead of secretly copying data from places like AT&T, the NSA now had access to do much more.
One of the files Edward Snowden leaked regarding PRISM was a PowerPoint created by the NSA. The presentation was meant to educate its analysts on exactly how PRISM worked. Here's the Cliff Notes.
Let's say the NSA believes a man named Joe Smith is a terrorist.
After placing Joe on their watch list, he Googles the words homemade bombs, which pings their surveillance network. The NSA can now do two things. They could pull some of Joe's information from fiber optic cables like they had with AT&T, or they could cast a much wider net using the PRISM program.
PRISM allowed the NSA to approach these tech companies and request all of Joe's digital correspondence. This includes his search history, texts, video calls and so forth. They would then sift through Joe's communications to determine if he was a credible threat or not.
And if Joe was plotting something, they'd move in to disrupt the attack.
But the most problematic element of prism was its scope.
The NSA could then collect the information of Joe's contacts, like his wife, his business associates, even his refrigerator repairman, meaning they could spy on the personal lives of people who weren't suspected of being terrorists, even when confronted with proof.
All nine tech companies denied knowing about PRISM. By their account, they weren't providing such large volumes of data. It became a question of who to believe Snowden or the tech organizations.
In reality, both were telling the truth. Companies did join PRISM, but Andrew McLaughlin, the former head of global public policy at Google, adds more nuance to this.
He claims that probably only the head lawyer and maybe the CEO of these companies knew about the surveillance operations. All other employees were likely clueless.
McGlaughlin wasn't the only one who seems to confirm Snowden's story. Yahoo did, too, according to The Washington Post. The intelligence community approached Yahoo! But their executives refused to participate. Then in 2008, the government threatened to fine Yahoo!
250000 dollars a day if they didn't comply from the government's perspective. Yahoo was unwilling to aid them in matters of national security.
Yahoo took the issue to court, wanting to defend their users privacy, according to the Fourth Amendment.
The government can only request specific information when investigating a crime. Yahoo! Believed PRISM was breaking this amendment by asking for far more data than was necessary.
Despite Yahoo's brave stance, they lost the case and were forced to comply.
In the end, the judge who ruled against them wrote that Yahoo! Quote, presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error or any broad potential for abuse in the circumstances of the instant case, end quote. It's possible the judge was influenced by the NSA, but it's more likely they, too, had been misled about the extent of the PRISM program, perhaps.
But the only company that's been able to resist the government for a prolonged period of time was Apple. They didn't give authorities access to their data until 2012, five years after Bush initiated the program.
Some believe that Apple's co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, was fully aware of prisms capabilities, and he did everything in his power to resist cooperation. It wasn't until after his death in 2011 that Apple gave in and participated.
So Apple and Yahoo were apparently the only two that resisted. The other seven appear to join without much of a fight. Maybe they were attracted to the money the government was willing to pay them.
Maybe. But joining the PRISM program cost these companies massive amounts of time and money just to get the government the information they requested. And federal law states that the government must reimburse an organization to cover any fees they incurred in the process of assisting them.
But a legislative counsel for the ACLU believes the government might be paying tech companies extra. She says, quote, The line you have to watch for is the difference between reimbursement for complying with a lawful order and actually a profit making enterprise.
In other words, the government may have padded the reimbursements with extra cash to buy their continued cooperation. In August 2013, The Guardian reached out to Yahoo! To ask if the government had reimbursed them, and they said yes, although they didn't specify how much they were reimbursed. So no one knows for sure if they're profiting or not.
One thing seems certain, though. These tech companies had to be aware that PRISM was happening in their organization. Snowden's evidence proves that they had knowingly allowed the government into their system, despite their claims to the contrary.
Well, not necessarily. As we already discussed, probably only two or three people knew about the initiative. There weren't company wide memos publicizing it.
I believe that most people genuinely didn't know about PRISM, but plenty of executives who manage those people may have they could have challenged the legality of PRISM. After all, that's what Steve Jobs reportedly did and Yahoo! Tried as well. So on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being undoubtedly true. I give this conspiracy a seven.
I'm inclined to look at the broader context. When a CEO receives a letter from the intelligence community demanding data, they probably feel compelled to comply. It's extremely expensive and risky to challenge the government when it comes to matters of national security. I think these companies were bullied into the matter and they probably didn't have a choice because of this. I give it a five out of 10.
The truth is federal authorities got their way no matter how hard people fought them, which made it all the more worrisome that PRISM often failed when it mattered most. Even with all the money, paranoia and legislation, it still didn't stop one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in American history. Coming up, we examine the efficacy of prison surveillance. Hi, listeners, it's Vanessa from podcast. If you haven't had a chance to check out my series mythology, you don't know what you're missing.
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Never compromise. Drink responsibly. Wild Turkey, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey fifty point five percent alcohol volume one on one roof. Copyright twenty twenty one. Campari America. New York. New York. Now back to the story. For years, the public was largely unaware that big tech companies were working with the NSA. That is until 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed they definitely were in varying degrees. These companies seem to be reimbursed for their participation. Whether or not they profited is still up for debate.
After Snowden's leak, the government scrambled to validate the PRISM program. They claimed it had successfully stopped terrorist attacks, but critics insisted it hadn't. Which leads us to a conspiracy theory. Number two, PRISM wasn't nearly as effective as the government wants us to believe. In 2013, just days after The Guardian and The Washington Post published Snowden's story, a man named Sean Joyce appeared before a congressional intelligence committee as deputy director of the FBI.
He spoke on behalf of the intelligence community and highlighted prisms efficacy. He pointed to several instances in which they used PRISM to stop terrorist plots in the U.S..
One example he used was an alleged scheme against the New York Stock Exchange in 2008. Thanks to PRISM, federal law enforcement had picked up on a conversation between two U.S. residents and their al-Qaida contacts overseas.
The two co-conspirators were named Khalid Husseini and Sabrin Hasan off. Husseini lived in Missouri and had spent 23000 dollars funding the terrorist organization. According to Jois, PRISM allowed them to read past emails they'd exchanged in them. al-Qaida ordered Hassan off to travel to the New York Stock Exchange and conduct reconnaissance on the building. He then sent that information back to the terrorists to aid their plans. But the government might be inflating their success. Has another lawyer claimed that al-Qaida had certainly asked him to check out the stock exchange, but federal authorities didn't arrest fast enough for another year and a half.
So naturally, the lawyer asked, quote, if they thought it was really a plot. What was the government doing letting Hasan off, run around?
We know that these terrorists were planning an attack and PRISM helped the NSA monitor their plan. However, it seems like the NSA never had to take action. The plot went away on its own. Regardless of the NSA's inaction, Joyce's story does testify to prisms efficacy.
Perhaps, but Joyce conveniently avoided discussing the cases in which PRISM didn't perform as it should have, most notably how the program failed to stop the Boston Marathon bombing just two months before his testimony.
The event took place on April 15th, 2013, at 249 pm to modified pressure cookers packed with shrapnel detonated near the finish line. The explosion killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. Immediately, 1000 law enforcement officers mobilized to locate and capture the responsible party.
Investigators pored over 13000 videos and one hundred and twenty thousand photographs submitted by the public two days later on April 17th. They found security camera footage of two men carrying the bombs in their backpacks. They released the images to the public, but no one could identify the men on the night of April 18th.
The two suspects carjacked an SUV taking its driver hostage when they stopped for gas. The driver escaped and called.
The police officers tracked the bombers to a nearby neighborhood, leading to a shootout. The police eventually overwhelm the older suspect, but the younger man escaped.
First responders tried to save the wounded suspect, but he died from his injuries. Officials identified him as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. His partner was his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Dzhokhar was also wounded and ditched the car about a half a mile away on April 19th. Police locked down the neighborhood to search for him, but were unsuccessful.
That evening, a local resident went outside to adjust the tarp on his boat. There he found, joka bleeding inside, the terrorist was handed over to the authorities.
It was only after the harrowing four day search ended that new information regarding PRISM came to light.
The oldest brother, Tamerlan, first came to America from a province of Russia known as the Republic of Dagestan in 2003. In 2011, Russian intelligence reached out to the FBI warning that he was an Islamic extremist when the U.S. asked Russian officials for more information.
They reportedly declined to respond. And while the U.S. interviewed Tamerlan and placed him on a watch list, they never fully looked into the matter.
Perhaps the FBI thought that even if Tamerlan did plot something, their surveillance network would notify them. Then they could use PRISM to investigate further. Unfortunately, that's not what happened.
Just one year before the marathon, Tamerlan visited his former home in Dagestan, a hotbed of terrorist activity at the time. He also allegedly tried to join one of the militant Islamic groups in that area. But for some reason, he didn't succeed.
His travels should have ping the government spy network, prompting more investigation with PRISM.
But that didn't happen when Tamerlan returned to the states. He searched known terrorist sites on how to make a pressure cooker bomb. The NSA's blanket surveillance missed this activity as well.
Ultimately, prison was ineffective at stopping one of the largest modern terrorist attacks on American soil, and this wasn't the only program that failed. Two days after the bombing, once the FBI found images of the brothers, they still couldn't identify the perpetrators, which is especially worrisome, granted that the FBI should have already had Tamerlan photograph in their database.
He'd been arrested for domestic violence a few years prior, and the bureau had spent over a billion dollars on a facial recognition system which should have matched Tamerlan image with his mug shots. While this wasn't directly a part of PRISM, it was an egregious failure as part of a larger surveillance program.
Ultimately, though, despite these massive breakdowns, the FBI still did their job. They caught the terrorists, and PRISM is still a useful tool for finding information about bombers. In fact, the intelligence community credited PRISM for stopping another plot in 2009 on the New York City subway after an Afghan American named Najibullah Zazi emailed a contact in Pakistan discussing a recipe for a homemade bomb.
The NSA used PRISM to monitor their conversations. Officials then tracked Zarzis location and arrested him. When they found him, he had bomb making ingredients in backpacks.
I certainly commend the NSA for their actions. However, investigative journalists later pointed out that PRISM may not have played a significant role in this Zazi case.
Apparently, authorities already possessed much of the information they needed from other sources. PRISM simply validated this data. Given prisms failure to prevent the Boston bombing and the exaggerated claims of its performance, I'm doubtful it was very effective. On a scale of one to 10, I give this theory six.
I'm not so sure the framework of PRISM is the problem. If we want to get into semantics, it seems like the software itself does its job more likely. Authorities aren't using it for its intended purpose. Overall, PRISM has a pretty good track record. The NSA says that PRISM has stopped over 50 terrorist plots since 9/11, 10 of which were scheduled to happen on U.S. soil. I don't think we have access to enough information to compare the programs, public failures with its secret successes.
I give this theory a three out of 10, regardless of who was responsible for what. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the NSA deployed a new monster into the surveillance field. It was exponentially more powerful than PRISM, and once it came out of the box, it was impossible to put back in.
Coming up, the government may have a system that knows us better than we know ourselves. This episode is brought to you by CBS Health.
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Sportsbook Doug Faneuil dot com four terms and restrictions. Gambling problem call one 800 gambler. Now back to the story. Once the extent of PRISM surveillance came to light, the American public demanded to know if the program was effective. High ranking officials at the NSA claimed it was. But critics weren't as convinced. Either way, it's led them to develop newer, more innovative ways to monitor our every move. This takes us to conspiracy theory number three. Authorities are now cataloging our biological data and daily habits to predict what we'll do next.
Just a year before Edward Snowden came forward in 2013, the military increased the number of surveillance balloons in Afghanistan. These crafts were tethered to the ground and equipped with high powered cameras. They surveyed vast areas of land 24 hours a day. They collected thousands of hours of footage and raw data and then sent it to a software developed by a company called Palantir, which organized the information. If a military analyst wanted to find a red truck, Palantir would present them with every moment a red truck appeared so they didn't have to manually sift through the footage.
One of these analysts was a man who author Annie Jacobsen refers to as Kevin H. In her book First Platoon. She says the Palantir software provided Kevin with information on various subjects living in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, a district known for past terrorist activity. Much of Kevin's job was to observe people's daily routines. It sounds monotonous, but it played a critical role in their intelligence operations.
As one intelligence expert put it, quote, By understanding a person's pattern of life, analysts can build models of potential outcomes and anticipate what may happen and quote. But humans weren't the only ones making predictions, Palantir software also learned about the villagers and helped make predictions on what they'd do next.
Kevin knew that most people he watched weren't terrorists. However, one man who wore a purple hat certainly seemed to be using Palantir.
Kevin sifted through countless hours of the man's activities. He'd caught him secretly digging holes and planting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, where American soldiers were known to patrol.
After gathering the evidence, Kevin submitted it to his supervisor. His boss confirmed the target and authorized an air strike to kill the man in the purple hat. Kevin showed up to work one morning to find that the air strike was just moments away. But as he waited for the attack, he noticed the target was sitting on an expensive tractor. That might not seem like a big deal to us, but it was for Kevin.
He knew the terrorist wasn't a farmer and had no reason to possess one meaning. This was absolutely not there, Mark. Kevin tried to warn his supervisor, who told him he had just five minutes to prove the computer wrong. Kevin raced to his desk, pointed one of the aerostats cameras towards the terrorists home, and waited for the man to appear. After a few minutes, the man finally stepped outside with this positive visual identification. Kevin called off the strike and prevented an innocent man's execution in trying to figure out what went wrong.
Kevin's team later realized that the early morning light had tricked the cameras. It made the farmer's hat look like the same shade of purple as the terrorists had. The computer then poorly translated that data and misidentified the farmer.
Some might dismiss this as a close call and a remote war zone, but the reality is Palantir is being used stateside and it continues to make errors that could lead to irreversible damage.
The New Orleans Police Department secretly began using the Palantir software in 2012, similar to the operations in Afghanistan. They used the system to aggregate the data of the city's residents.
This included a person's geography, social media posts and criminal records, which could help officials predict if someone was likely to commit a crime.
Normally, a program like this would need to be reviewed by a committee. But Pelletiere found a loophole. They betrayed their work with the city as a philanthropic partnership, which allowed them to bypass city council members and lawyers.
One consultant for Palantir claimed the city saw a 33 percent drop in its murder rate within two years of using the system. It's a bold claim, especially because he didn't divulge how Palantir made that possible.
But a sociologist named Sara Brain did. She worked with another police department using Palantir, the LAPD, and explained how the officers used the software.
In a nutshell, analysts had vast amounts of information into Palantir and other predictive software from their their programs created a summary of who is in what neighborhood and what crimes might be committed there. Police then patrol those parts of the city in hopes of deterring crime. Independent studies have shown that predictive policing can have a disproportionate impact on poor communities of color. These programs look at all the data where crimes have been reported and arrests have been made since police activity happens more often in those communities.
These algorithms further reinforce racial profiling.
On a proactive note, New Orleans stopped using Palantir a few years ago once the public became aware of it.
But as of 2020, the LAPD is still using the software and hundreds of police departments have been using equally problematic surveillance technology called Clearview A.
I like Palantir. The software is technically legal. Instead of predicting behavior, though, it collects data on biometrics. These body measurements include things like facial structure, expressions, heart rate fingerprints and voice recognition. Clearview primarily focuses on facial biometrics.
Ultimately, the software scours billions of faces on the Internet and hopes of connecting someone to surveillance footage. And according to one New York Times article, it's extremely effective in twenty.
Twenty two men got in a fight in Indiana, one shot, the other in the stomach, which a bystander caught on camera. Police then ran the video through Clearview and found the criminal in under 20 minutes.
But for all the positive press it's received, the interface is at risk for similar problems that reinforce racial profiling. Studies have shown that facial recognition programs are more likely to mis identify Asian and black Americans compared to white men. So clearly, more surveillance does not translate into more security for millions of Americans. These programs only seem to keep privileged group safe, which leaves an enormous portion of the nation at risk of losing their jobs or even their lives because of an error made by a computer.
Our policymakers have certainly expanded their surveillance power, but there's still reason to hope things will get better. In 2015, Congress passed a bill called the USA Freedom Act, which curbed the NSA's authority to gather our telephone records and Internet metadata in bulk.
While the government maintained the power to collect some call records, the bill required authorities to have good reason. It also gave tech and telecommunications companies the freedom to report what the government was asking of them.
After 14 years of dystopian levels of surveillance, it may have been a step in the right direction. But while the USA Freedom Act reforms certain parts of the NSA's spy program, PRISM was left untouched. In twenty eighteen, Congress voted to let PRISM run for another six years. And furthermore, the week before the vote, then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked a rule which prevented lawmakers from specifying which amendments to reinstate, meaning PRISM couldn't be altered.
Critics of the reauthorization say the government missed a huge. Opportunity for reform with PRISM still active, Laila Abdelaziz of the Fight for the Future Advocacy Group claimed it turned the Internet into a, quote, powerful surveillance weapon that can be used by the government against its own citizens.
Ultimately, as we've discussed, PRISM isn't the only technology still active. Palantir and Clearview are also operating with minimal oversight. Part of this may be because Palantir was helpful to the Trump administration's agenda. It also helped Border Patrol detain and deport undocumented immigrants.
At least the USA Freedom Act led to more progress. In September 20, a Court of appeals ruled that part of the NSA program Edward Snowden disclosed was illegal.
I don't think it's enough. Even with increased regulation, it's clear that the government is still spying on us new ways to track our search history. Our faces and habits are constantly being introduced.
Because of this, I give conspiracy theory number three, a nine out of 10.
It's true that new technology has been developed, but it hasn't necessarily been applied. It's important for us to remember that Pelletiere, perhaps the most concerning piece of software has been dropped by most major Metropolitan Police departments. And while its usage in Los Angeles by the LAPD is still a big deal, increased scrutiny has forced lawmakers and Palantir executives to curb the software spread because of facial recognition software. As errors in mis identifying a large number of people, some companies have chosen not to research or sell it at all.
Amazon and Microsoft suspended sales of their facial recognition products to law enforcement in the summer of 2020. There's still a lot of work to do, but it seems like companies with the power to push back are pushing for reform because of this, right? This a seven out of 10.
Ironically, in the years since presumes disclosure people have become less angry about widespread surveillance.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who first broke Snowden's story, suggests the public just got comfortable with it. Maybe there was nothing to fear because they had nothing to hide.
But according to Greenwald, everyone has something they want to protect, even if it's not illegal. People still need to consider what they've searched or what they've sent, like explicit photos or private communication with business partners or significant others. Ultimately, federal authorities will always have a long reach. Right now, it's not a question of if the government's watching. The question is how.
Thanks for tuning into conspiracy theories for more information on government surveillance, amongst the many sources we used, we found First Platoon by Annie Jacobsen, extremely helpful to our research. We'll be back next time with a new episode. You can find all episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Spotify originals from Park asked for free on Spotify.
Until then, remember, the truth isn't always the best story, and the official story isn't always the truth.
Conspiracy Theories is a Spotify original from podcast. It's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Dick Schroder with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Travis Clark. This episode of Conspiracy Theories was written by Robert Hecate with Writing Assistants by Lori Gottlieb and McKenzie. More fact checking by Annibale and research by Bradley Klein. Conspiracy theory stars Molly Brandenberg and Carter Roy.