The NSA, PRISM, and Social Media

Posted by Emily Lange Rodecker on June 19, 2013

The recent National Security Administration (NSA) leaks about its PRISM program (which allows the NSA to collect online data including search history, email content, file transfers, and live chats, including video) and telephone data surveillance have created quite the stir. Gremln takes a closer look at the news as it has been unfolding and the social media reaction to the mounting privacy concerns.

Facebook NSA meme


Why is this news just popping up now? Because 29-year-old Edward Snowden (former technical assistant for the CIA and current NSA contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton) released confidential reports to The Guardian and The Washington Post that specifically point to this major data collection.

NSA slide data

What Was Leaked? 

The Guardian reported news of a top-secret court order, issued in April of this year, allowing the NSA to obtain telephone records of US Verizon customers from April 25 – July 19, 2013.

Also released: a confidential report showing nine companies that allegedly have given the NSA access to data stored on their servers, including Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Google, Yahoo!, PalTalk, Skype, and Facebook. The program began in 2007, and has been growing steadily since that time. According to Gizmodo, PRISM’s purpose is “to monitor potentially valuable foreign communications that might pass through US servers.” 

NSA News Timeline

  • June 5: A story by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian revealed the NSA’s practice of collecting Verizon phone records and associated telephony metadata – including phone numbers, location data, and call duration –with FISA’s approval, for a period from April 25 – July 19, 2013.
  • June 6: The Washington Post released NSA slides unveiling the government’s PRISM surveillance project and naming the Internet data sources supposedly supplying access to user’s email, video chat, voice chat, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notifications of target activity – logins, etc., online social networking details, and special requests.
  • June 6: The Washington Post published another report saying Britain’s security agency, the GCHQ, has a similar program accessing the same companies, and was set up by the NSA.
  • June 6: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement on the disclosures, saying that while it is true the NSA collects telephony data, it does so in accordance with the law and is careful to protect US citizens civil liberties. He also attempted to clarify the way the data is being used - noting that content is not being read, viewed, or listened to, but rather the metadata (numbers dialed, location data, etc.) is being collected for analysis.
  • June 7: all companies (Microsoft/Skype, Google/YouTube, PalTalk, Yahoo!, Apple, Facebook) named as participants issued statements denying their knowledge in, or involvement with, NSA’s PRISM.
  • June 9: Edward Snowden comes forward as the whistleblower who released the NSA confidential documents, communicating with The Guardian and The Washington Post from an undisclosed hotel in Hong Kong.
  • June 11: Another story published in The Guardian releases information about Boundless Informant, the NSA’s data mining tool that details and maps countries and the amount of computer and telephone data collected from them, as well as information about recently collected data from computer networks worldwide.
  • June 13: The New York Times reports Yahoo! joined PRISM after a 2008 court order forced the company into it, despite the its attempts to refuse participation.

Social Reaction

How is the social web responding?

News outlets, political pundits, and concerned individuals the world over are taking to social media to share articles, voice opinions, and discuss the NSA scandal –the hashtag #NSA quickly rose to the top trending topic of the day on June 6, 2013, with roughly 250,000 mentions in less than 24 hours.

The official Twitter accounts for @BarackObama, @WhiteHouse, and @PressSec (Jay Carney) have not posted about the NSA scandal (other than a RT on June 17 announcing President Obama’s scheduled appearance on Charlie Rose).

But in true Internet fashion serious discussions on government surveillance and the NSA scandal were interspersed with sarcastic and silly memes, hashtags, and faux Twitter accounts.

A “spoof” NSA Twitter account (@PRISM_NSA) popped up on June 6:

NSA Fake Twitter

PRISM Fake Twitter


Memes on the surveillance of telephony data gave new meaning to Verizon’s branding slogans and product offerings:

Verizon Monitor Meme

Obama NSA Meme

And the hashtag #NSACalledToTellMe resulted in hundreds of tweets like these:

NSA hashtag

NSA Tweets

Denny’s took a page from Oreo’s fast-reaction marketing book and tweeted this:

Denny's NSA Tweet

What’s Next?

The story continues to unfold, and more information about how this data is or isn’t being used is coming to the surface.


Mozilla, maker of the free and open source software Firefox, has created a petition to Congress requesting the NSA stop blanket data collection of US citizens. You can view the petition here.

Topics: NSA, Prism, privacy, Social Media News, social media privacy

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