At a recent event held by the Cato Institute concerning the NSA’s surveillance overreach, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who broke the PRISM story and (of course) has been one of the three key reporters on all of the Snowden docs, noted that the feds begged him not to reveal the nine companies listed as participants in the PRISM program. Gellman and the Post refused, noting that the government’s reasons for wanting to keep the names out didn’t raise any legitimate security concerns, but rather had to do with making life easier for the NSA:
The thing that the government most wanted us to remove was the names of the nine companies. The argument, roughly speaking, was that we will lose cooperation from companies if you expose them in this way. And my reply was “that’s why we are including them.” Not in order to cause a certain result, or to get you to lose your cooperation but if the harm that you are describing consists of reputational or business damage to a company because the public doesn’t like what it’s doing or you’re doing, that’s the accountability we are supposed to be promoting.
Right. That’s called journalism: revealing information that the public should know about in order to make its own decisions about what they’re doing with their information and privacy, which has been kept from them. Yes, it makes sense for the press to refrain from revealing direct sources and methods of surveillance that create a real national security issue — but keeping the public in the dark about how the government has been able to compromise these companies isn’t a national security issue at all. As we’ve pointed out in the past, there are plenty of tools in the surveillance toolbox that the public knows exists, which don’t make the methods useless any more. For example, traditional phone wiretaps. It’s no secret that those exist, and the public can debate the standards under which they’re used. And law enforcement still uses them because they’re useful.
But that’s not what happened with PRISM. Instead, the whole concept was kept entirely secret — including the overbroad gag orders on the tech companies. That’s the troubling part here. There was no ability to have a public discussion over the standards of use. There’s a difference between having the press say “wiretaps exist” and “the feds are wiretapping so-and-so right now.” The revelation of the PRISM members was more the former, rather than the latter, but the intelligence community keeps pretending it was the latter.