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Director Of National Intelligence Tries To Downplay PRISM Paranoia, Says The System Doesn’t Mine Data

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There have been plenty of juicy (and unsettling) PRISM details making the rounds these past few days, and unsurprisingly the Office of the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t think the NSA’s surveillance practices have been cast in the most accurate light. In an effort to help do away with some pervasive misconceptions, the ODNI has issued a statement explaining why it thinks people are blowing this out of proportion.

“The surveillance activities published in The Guardian and The Washington Post are lawful and conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress,” Director James R. Clapper pointed out in a widely emailed missive. “Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber attacks against the United States and its allies.”

Some of the arguments that ODNI throws out there will sound pretty familiar. It states that PRISM can’t be used to “intentionally target any U.S. citizen, or any other U.S. person” (which President Obama pointed out the other day), and that the U.S. government can’t just collect information all willy-nilly — it needs judicial approval and oversight from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.

Perhaps most importantly, the ODNI says that PRISM isn’t “a data mining program,” which dovetails nicely with reports from a slew of publicly outed tech companies, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, PalTalk and (TechCrunch owner) AOL, that say they don’t give the NSA (or any body of the U.S. government) direct access to their servers. Still, the prevailing sentiment in certain privacy-sensitive corners of the web is that these companies are basically arguing over semantics: They may not be giving the NSA direct access, but it’s become clear that the information is winding up in the hands of those intelligence agencies anyway, and that has raised more than a few people’s hackles.

Of course, the timing of the statement isn’t exactly ideal. While the ODNI carefully laid out its arguments regarding the need for and efficacy of the PRISM system, The Guardian’s Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill just recently published new information on yet another surreptitious snooping tool: the NSA’s so-called Boundless Informant. If PRISM is the system that harvests all of that ballyhooed metadata about your calls and communiques, Boundless Informant is the system that lets the NSA ascribe that metadata to different countries and drill down accordingly. Don’t expect this rigmarole to end any time soon, folks.

You can read the entire ODNI fact sheet below: