Data security and privacy: Spying in the cloud with the Prism program

Major US and UK intelligence gathering operations ‘blown’

The recent revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the existence of the secret US Prism program has caused political and diplomatic shockwaves. This was widened when Mr Snowden revealed that GCHQ taps over 200 of the UK’s main optical fibre network links. As well as the embarrassment of the US and the UK having major intelligence operations ‘blown’, it is also of some significance to those that use cloud-based services.
While denying they provided “direct access”, among others, Google, Facebook and Twitter are alleged to have been in some way complicit to the US government’s analysis of user data. In some ways this represents a backward step and is generally unhelpful at a time when the battle to over come fears about security and privacy in the cloud is being won.

Uptake of cloud services by businesses slowed by concerns

Concerns over security and privacy have somewhat slowed the shift to the cloud for many businesses. Most have commercially sensitive or data where intellectual property resides, and are unwilling to take on the risk of putting such information in the commercial cloud.
There have been well publicised commercial leaks, like the theft of Sony’s database. However, such cases remain the exception rather than the rule. Compared with the volume of data in the cloud, incidents of security and privacy breaches are relatively small.
It’s little a bit like the safety of air transport. Air transport is very safe. Compared with the number of passenger movements the number of accidents is very small.

A knock from the spooks

Despite the support this provides for the logic of moving to the cloud, not everyone is convinced. Some are disturbed about the implications for data privacy, but generally there is very little to worry about. If the US or UK governments want to find something out, then generally data security measures and privacy legislation is unlikely to prevent it getting its hands on the intelligence it needs.
If what you’re doing is legitimate, you have nothing to worry about. In the context of Prism, the only risk from the cloud is that if you are doing something that the government sees as a security threat, you may get a knock on the door from the spooks from MI5.

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For more on the GCHQ’s global leading snooping capability read ‘GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications’ at


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