Ted Rall PRISM Takeaway: Are We Citizens or Serfs? Should Obama Resign? commentary

In this fiery column, Ted Rall says PRISM is the biggest story in our lives. Are we citizens or serfs? Should Obama resign? And what of the tech companies? Ted Rall, a nationally syndicated columnist, political cartoonist and veteran war correspondent for The Village Voice, writes this fiery and penetrating analysis for aNewDomain.net. Here’s why, he says, we need swift action.

aNewDomain.net — Ted Rall is a nationally-known and veteran journalist, novelist and syndicated cartoonist. In this column, written for aNewDomain.net, we get ttedhe Ted Rall PRISM takeaway … pulling no punches.

By Ted Rall: You wouldn’t know it from reading the newspaper or watching TV, but the leaked news about the FBI and NSA PRISM surveillance project may well be the most important news event of your life.

I would say it is the most important news story. But the so-called gatekeepers of the press and the airwaves determine that. They so far are downplaying revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts every email and text and other data and stores them on a giant supercomputer in Utah, placing the NSA coverage below such pressing concerns as immigration reform and Supreme Court decisions concerning gay marriage.

Alternatively, I would call it the PRISM scandal, but I can’t do that either.

It’s not a scandal unless people are up in arms, and there is no evidence of that. People claim not to be surprised – they say they always suspected the government was spying on their digital lives. Or they say they’re willing to give up a little privacy in return for a lot of protection from terrorism.

Of course, we’re talking about the entire Internet. Every phone call. Every financial transaction. Everything you buy and sell. Hardly a little bit of privacy. And, unless you are naïve enough to believe that the NSA is suddenly being truthful, and that there really are an even-steven 50 terrorist plots that never transpired, there’s not much protection either.

We are talking about nothing less than the culmination of George Orwell’s vision in his dystopian novel 1984. The government literally knows everything you do all the time.

Verizon has even filed a patent application for a Telescreen – a TV that watches you back.

“The NSA and the FBI,” writes the Washington Post, “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates.”

This is a government/big business conspiracy of the first order, so breathtaking in scope and ambition that it is scarcely comprehensible.

According to a classified PowerPoint presentation leaked by a patriotic intelligence officer said to be consumed with “horror at the capabilities” of the PRISM system, the U.S. government taps directly into the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Google, the biggest Internet company on earth, controlling 16 percent of global Internet traffic, pretended to stand up to China’s clumsy attempts to censor the Web, but when the NSA came calling, they saluted, bent over and paid for lube.

Google could have litigated. They could have called a press conference. They could have leaked the threats. Instead, they turned over everything. Voluntarily. If you’re online, Google has given your “private” information to the Feds.

“Don’t be evil?” Ha.

Ed Note: Find Google’s response to the PRISM story and its chief Eric Schmidt’s denial that anything was going on here

If capitalism counts for anything, contracts have to be enforced.

There is a universally understood implicit contract between Internet users and companies like Microsoft and Apple: they keep your data private to the best of their abilities.

They might get hacked; a court may serve them with a subpoena. Stuff happens.

But they’re not supposed to voluntarily give every bit and byte to the government just because the government asked nicely. Do you know why the give up your info? It’s because they want to be considered, in government parlance, “a trusted company.”

The government trusts them. But now can anyone else?

These Internet giants had a choice. They could have told the government to take a walk.

According to the Post:

Apple demonstrated that resistance is possible when it held out for more than five years, for reasons unknown, after Microsoft became PRISM’s first corporate partner in May 2007. Twitter, which has cultivated a reputation for aggressive defense of its users’ privacy, is still conspicuous by its absence from the list of ‘private sector partners.””

PRISM exposes the horrifying, galling partnership between the biggest Silicon Valley corporations and an out-of-control security state.

No one is safe in a society governed by such powerful elites colluding so closely.

The recently revealed PRISM program also belies previous official claims that anti-terrorism and other security-based intelligence-gathering operations are specifically targeted at likely threats.

To the contrary, the U.S. government is plainly interested in — and has largely succeeded at — intercepting, collecting and analyzing every electronic communication in the United States, and presumably abroad as well.

For example, according to a separate ‘User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection, (Skype) “can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of ‘audio, video, chat, and file transfers’ when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.”


That’s what they’re calling the emails we send each other. The photos we store in the “cloud.” Our video chats.

Everything we do online. Our entire online lives.


They’re offering us up. Plain and simple.

Yeah, of course, we knew they — the government — not our government, mind you, but they — the others — the minions of the one percent — — were spying on Americans at an epic scale that the Stasi spymasters depicted in the East German drama “The Lives of Others” couldn’t have dreamed of.

First came the 2001 USA-Patriot Act, which opened the door to officially-sanctioned law breaking in the supposed service of national security.

In 2002 there was DARPA’s Total Information Awareness, the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 data mining operation, an attempt, said one reporter, to “turn everything in cyberspace about everybody—tax records, driver’s-license applications, travel records, bank records, raw F.B.I. files, telephone records, credit-card records, shopping-mall security-camera videotapes, medical records, every e-mail anybody ever sent—into a single, humongous, multi-googolplexibyte database that electronic robots will mine for patterns of information suggestive of terrorist activity.”

After an uproar, Congress defunded TIA — so its staff and activities simply packed up and moved to the NSA, where they continue to work today.

There was also AT&T’s secret room 641A, the site of “clandestine collaboration between one big telecommunications company, AT&T, and the National Security Agency to facilitate the most comprehensive illegal domestic spying program in history.” That story broke in 2007.

A few days ago, another sweeping violation of privacy came to light. This time, “the government has obtained phone numbers of both parties on every Verizon call, the call’s duration, location data and the time of day the calls were made.” That program is ongoing.

Were other telecommunications carriers involved? Probably. This is one of the few rubber-stamp FISA court warrants to come to light.

It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate from these stories to the massive scope of PRISM.

But there’s a big difference between knowing the government is reading your emails and looking at your dirty pictures, and KNOWING they’re doing it. Now we KNOW.

So. What are we going to do about this?

Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple have all denied participation in PRISM. Maybe it’s all just a bad dream?


We need a full, independent investigation. Not by Congress. By someone we can trust. It’s hard to imagine who. Certainly not one of the big tech companies the leaked PRISM slides allege is betraying us.

Second: If this story turns out to be true, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the entire cabinet must resign and face prosecution.

According to the Post, data collected from the rogue PRISM program is relied upon for roughly one out of seven of the President’s Daily Briefs on intelligence matters. “That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications,” notes the Post.

It means that knowledge of PRISM, and authorization thereof, goes to the Oval Office. There must be accountability. Swift accountability.

Members of Congress, corporate executives of the Internet companies involved, and of any other companies, must be held to account as well. Prosecutions should come quickly.

Finally, we have some hard questions to ask ourselves.  Ready?

I’d start with this one:

What does it mean to be an American?

Are we citizens, free men and women?

Or are we serfs, not vested in even the primal right to talk to our friends and family members without some goddamned government asshole listening in?

This is what I want to know. Ask yourself. They are hard questions, but this is the right time to ask.

Based in Boston, Ted Rall is an award-winning and nationally-known columnist and political cartoonist, now also contributing to aNewDomain.net. In the Afghanistan War, Ted was the war correspondent for The Village Voice. His work has appeared in most mainstream media outlets in the world. For more, check out his website at tedrall.com. And watch for his book,  “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.”  It will hit shelves in March 2014 via Farrar, Straus & Giroux.



  • Ted makes some interesting, but over reaching points that his editor, dearest Gina, should have caught. The most critical of these is that PRISM has not been ALL data from ALL users. It SHOULD have been all of it from everyone to be truly effective, but there are some tremendous technical, manpower and financial resource requirements to accomplish that. Some rough math puts it beyond the total combined capabilities of all of those companies and the NSA, FBI, IRS and DMV. But that is only at their present levels. With time, it will become possible. Then again, with more time we’ll all be able someday to do the same on our own from from our very own phones.

    Those companies were under very rigid confidentiality agreements that specifically prevent them from mention that they were under those agreements, and the terms of those agreements, and what they were really doing. I’m very familiar with such documents. The news on that has been out for a while, and that each of those companies has since backpedalled and confessed that they did share, and most have said what they’ve shared. It would have filled out the article better if that had been included.

    But there is a more important point:

    There is no real expectation of privacy with any of those services. Your phone company phones every call you make, they record your voicemails, and they’ve been doing it for years. Google reads all of your gmail. All of it. Always has. And your calendar, and everything in Google docs. I can go on, but it shouldn’t be necessary.

    Everyone should READ completely all of the fine print in the T.O.S. (Terms of Service) for everything that connects to the internet. In every contract you make with any company, you selectively CHOOSE to give up certain rights. It is always a choice. You can choose not to use those services. But they count on you not really reading the TOS, not really thinking if you read them, and not really caring about what it all means. Consumer apathy is their most powerful tool.

    Is it OK that Google reads all of your email in the hopes that they can target ads to you better? Microsoft tried to make that point in a terrible ad campaign recently. Microsoft reads stuff too, just not nearly as well, and they own Skype.

    I live in a world of secrets, and I’m mostly comfortable there. I avoid all of those services partly to keep those secrets secure. That is me, I am deeply inside it all and see these all as these scary things they are.

    Consider this:
    Somewhere there is a 15 year old buying drinks in a club in Texas with a fake California ID that says they are 23. That is bad, but not evil. It would easily save lives, save liabilities, improve business and make club owners happier if those clubs could scan and ID and know instantly if it was fake. That technology exists today, but it is not deployed at that level due to cost and complexity, not privacy concerns. But that is the state of The State’s technology. That very narrow set of data that is already pretty well out there, still can’t be brought to bear in a meaningful way.

    You want to fear PRISM? Go right ahead. You want to live in the modern world? Get over that fear.

    There are bad people in the world who intend evil harm to others. If they can be found before they can act, that is a good thing. Even if all of this only found one and saved just one life, it would be enough.

    My rights have not been violated, nor have yours.

    Through work here I was compelled to use a Google address. There is a google group for the editorial team and that is all it was kept for. At present my access to that group seems to have vanished. So I am presently peacefully outside of PRISM’s grasp, at least online.

    There is a very cute girl that works at the phone store. She has indicated she’d like to hang out some time, and I’ve though about, a lot. She’s cute, and she’s always been extra nice. Many free phones kind of nice. But she works for the mobile phone network. She has access to my call records, the location of all of my phones (and me) and at some point it was clear to me I wasn’t comfortable dating someone who would have all of that. Someday, I hope I could outgrow that unease, or give up a lot of those other phones…