What Does the NSA Acronym PRISM Stand For?

The Government's Once-Secret Program for Gathering Information

NSA Spy Facility
This is the NSA's spy data collection center in Bluffdale, Utah. Located just south of Salt Lake City, it has been reported this is the largest spy center in the world with massive computer power processing data. George Frey/Getty Images News

PRISM is an acronym for the program launched by the National Security Agency to collect and analyze massive volumes of private data stored on servers operated by Internet service providers and held by large web companies including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

Specifically, national intelligence director James Clapper defined the PRISM program in June 2013 as an "internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision."

The NSA does not need a warrant to obtain the information, though the constitutionality of the program has been called into question. A federal judge declared the program illegal in 2013.

Here are some questions and answers about the program and the NSA acronym.

What Does PRISM Stand For?

PRISM is an acronym for Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management.

So What Does PRISM Really Do?

According to published reports, the National Security Agency has been using the PRISM program to monitor information and data communicated via the Internet. Those data are contained in audio, video and image files, email messages and web searches on major U.S. Internet company websites.

The National Security Agency has acknowledged that it inadvertently collects from some Americans without a warrant in the name of national security. It has not said how often that happens, though. Officials have said the government's policy is to destroy such personal information.

All that intelligence officials will say is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act cannot be used to "intentionally target any U.S. citizen, or any other U.S. person, or to intentionally target any person known to be in the United States."

Instead, PRISM is used for "an appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition (such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation) and the foreign target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States.

Why Does the Government Use PRISM?

Intelligence officials say they are authorized to monitor such communications and data in an effort to prevent terrorism. They monitor servers and communications in the United States because they may hold valuable information that originated overseas.

Has PRISM Prevented Any Attacks

Yes, according to unnamed government sources.

According to them, the PRISM program helped stop an Islamist militant named Najibullah Zazi from carrying out plans to bomb the the New York City subway system in 2009.

Does the Government Have the Right to Monitor Such Communication?

Members of the intelligence community say they have a right to use the PRISM program and similar surveillance techniques for monitoring electronic communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

When Did the Government Start Using PRISM?

The National Security Agency started using PRISM in 2008, the last year of Republican George W. Bush's administration, which ramped up national security efforts in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Who Oversees PRISM

The National Security Agency's surveillance efforts are governed, foremost, by the U.S. Constitution and are supposed to be overseen by a number of entities including the executive, legislation and judicial branches of the federal government.

Specifically, oversight on PRISM come from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, the Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and of course the president of the United States.

Controversy over PRISM

The revelation that the government was monitoring such Internet communications was disclosed during President Barack Obama's administration. It came under scrutiny by members of both major political parties.

Obama defended the PRISM program, however, by saying it was necessary for Americans to give up some measure of privacy in order to remain safe from terrorist attacks.

"I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have a hundred percent security and also then have a hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society," Obama said in June 2013.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "What Does the NSA Acronym PRISM Stand For?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/nsa-acronym-prism-3367711. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). What Does the NSA Acronym PRISM Stand For? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/nsa-acronym-prism-3367711 Murse, Tom. "What Does the NSA Acronym PRISM Stand For?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/nsa-acronym-prism-3367711 (accessed June 9, 2023).