The view through a prism can distort shapes and fragment color — perhaps heightening the beholder’s interest, but offering anything but an authentic glimpse of reality. The National Security Agency’s ironic choice of “PRISM” as the code name for a massive data-collection program, recently exposed in documents leaked by federal contractor Edward Snowden, only begins to suggest the problems with this clandestine intrusion into the lives of citizens.
Government snooping is nothing new. But PRISM, which gathers information from Facebook, Google, and other tech giants, appears unusually far-reaching; the security agency was gathering detailed phone-call data from Verizon as well. These initiatives have moved the potential scale of government surveillance into a whole new realm whose limits are unknown — not only to citizens, but to officials responsible for the management of intelligence collection.