PRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program

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Patrick Semansky / AP

The National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md., on June 6, 2013.

One day after The Guardian revealed that the U.S. government has been secretly collecting call log data from millions of Verizon customers, The Washington Post reported Thursday that the government’s monitoring of American’s data goes much, much deeper. The FBI and the National Security Agency are mining the servers of the country’s biggest technology companies for the purpose of hunting spies and terrorists. The program, code-named PRISM, is massive in scope and involves web services that many Americans use every day.

To make all this shadowy surveillance easier to digest, here are the relevant data points about the massive data collection:

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The number of tech companies involved in the PRISM program. Here’s a list, from an NSA slideshow, including the date when monitoring began:

  • Microsoft (September 2007)
  • Yahoo (March 2008)
  • Google (January 2009)
  • Facebook (June 2009)
  • PalTalk (December 2009)
  • YouTube (September 2010)
  • Skype (February 2011)
  • AOL (March 2011)
  • Apple (October 2012)

So far Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo have flatly denied that they provide the government backdoor access to their services, according to a variety of news sources. Twitter, which says it has been particularly vigilant in protecting user data from government agencies, is notably absent from the list. Dropbox is next in line to be added to PRISM, according to the Post.


The number of different types of data that are collected through PRISM. E-mails, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data (likely items stored on cloud services like Google Drive), voice chats, file transfers, video conferences, log-in times, and social network profile details have all been monitored by the government. Through PRISM NSA officials can even conduct live surveillance of someone doing a Google search, according to the Post.

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$20 million

The annual cost of PRISM, according to NSA documents obtained by the Post


The year PRISM was established. The Post describes an “exponential growth” in the program since President Obama took office. The government has snooped on other forms of communication in recent years as well. On Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein confirmed that the NSA phone log database has been in place for at least seven years.


The number of times PRISM data was cited in 2012 as part of President Obama’s daily briefing, a high-level intelligence presentation given to the president, the vice president and select cabinet members. According to the Post, at least 1 in 7 intelligence reports from the NSA make use of PRISM data.


Confidence level intelligence officials are supposed to have of a target’s “foreignness” to make use of PRISM data. The massive database is aimed at surveilling spies and foreign terrorists, not Americans. However, large amounts of American user data is also picked up as officials hunt for threats. The NSA describes this as “incidental.”

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