NSA PRISM and ICMS: Did Uncle Sam Create a Big Brother?

It came as a shock to many that the US is spying on different countries – their phone calls, emails and other forms of communications – including social networks. Since the issue came into light, the US National Security Agency (NSA), its pet PRISM and Snowden are news.

Just in case you don’t know about Snowden, he is an ex-CIA who brought the spying issue to light. Currently in China, he is seeking protection against possible extradition to US for going public against the public data collection PRISM program of the feds. Following the issue of NSA PRISM, the Indian govt. came up with a program to act like a big brother keeping watch on what Indians do. Before discussing what is ICMS – in India – let’s take a quick look at what NSA PRISM is all about.

What is NSA Prism - Internet Content Monitoring System

What is NSA PRISM Program

Most of you know that NSA Prism is an electronic surveillance program aimed at keeping an eye on the communications of people inside and outside USA. The program was a secret until the conscience of a young CIA executive made it impossible for him to keep it secret as he believed it infringed the rights of US and other democracies.

According to an interview to The Guardian [1], Snowden said –

“I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building”.

What came as worse reaction was that NSA data collection was not related plus contained only to the US. Instead, the security agency was collecting data from across the planet – China and India included. I have a friend in Canada who was pretty offended saying this is not how you treat your neighbors. While I could not get the reaction of China, the only statement from India said, “If the reports were found to be true, it will not be tolerated [2]”.

The Washington Post carries a detailed article [3] that explains what NSA PRISM is and shows how/why other countries were being monitored. The basic idea is to keep an eye on communications for possible acts of terrorism.  This is done by monitoring phone call origin and destination plus the duration of calls. For data packets, it is keyword based. If anything interesting is found in a data packet, NSA PRISM can obtain the entire and any communication(s) from the service providers that can be any telecom operator or any of the big Internet-based companies.

The program has brought a question mark on not only the privacy of US citizens and others’ whose data is routed through US-based servers, it also raises trust issues with ISPs, VPNs and similar systems. We’ll come to this in a different article later. For now, you cannot blindly trust any company as most of them have opened their backdoors for PRISM. Google, Facebook and Twitter along with many other marketing agencies already were tracking you for years.

Read: How To Avoid NSA PRISM.

What is ICMS in India – The Internet Content Monitoring System

People like us are trying to figure out if we are safe with the government collecting our data. Some others are protesting the NSA PRISM program and are asking the US government to abandon it. Still some others are figuring out methods to stay out of PRISM database.

Not stirred by any of the above, the Indian government seems to have picked up a cue and has started monitoring Internet and phone. The Internet Content Monitoring System (ICMS) is central point that collects data from all over the Internet – pertaining to different users – and provides it to different investigation agencies in India. Among these investigation agencies are Information Bureau, RAW, CBI and more. The data collected from phone calls and Internet may also be used by the police to protect the country and society from anti-social elements.

The reason given for implementing ICMS is same as the one given to implement NSA PRISM: To protect the citizens. And this security comes at a cost: your privacy! The Mumbai cell has already set up a social media monitoring cell that will continuously monitor discussions on different media while the NIA has got the privilege to tap into your phones to find out whom you are talking to. Though they say they won’t be listening to the conversations and would try to figure out problems using phone numbers and frequency plus duration of calls, it seems impossible for people to resist when too many calls are being made from one number to another. In such cases, the calls too may be intercepted to know what is going on – just in case they are terrorists talking about how much they love each other!

My Opinion On ICMS

I really do not have any clue as to where the NSA PRISM or the ICMS will lead. I do feel it is almost impossible to track ‘real’ criminal activity on the Internet – to close on to the likes of terrorists. The first reason is that type of criminals – with the resources they have – may escape or bypass such surveillance. The second and better reason is that the Internet is not just a thousand or a million people. It is billions plus. Looking for traces of blood in an ocean would be a tedious task. But I do hope these methods will create some additional jobs and improve the employment scenario.

Read: Protect yourself from NSA spying.

What is Your Opinion?

Do you think NSA PRISM, ICMS or any other Internet monitoring system will be able to contain crime?

Do our governments really need to infringe on our privacy to detect crime?


[1] The Guardian, Snowden – The Whistleblower behind NSA Surveillance

[2] IBN-Live, Web Snooping Issue Taken Up With US Envoy

[3] The Washington Post, Prism Data Collection.

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Arun Kumar is a Microsoft MVP alumnus, obsessed with technology, especially the Internet. He deals with the multimedia content needs of training and corporate houses. Follow him on Twitter @PowercutIN


  1. John Lennon Forever

    Great article, Arun – you article is well-written and factual.

    In the US, our basic civil liberties are now compromised. Although some people here just don’t care, I for one am now very suspicious of the US government; more than ever before. Time and again, they do these types of things that end up causing distrust from their own citizens along with trusted friends in other countries. I understand that we live in an era of paranoia, but don’t compromise privacy for security. Our founding fathers declared independence from oppression. Our lawmakers seem to forget that and focus on controlling the general population.

    Don’t be surprised if there’s a massive technology backlash from this event. People here are talking about dumping their s smart technologies out of pure distrust of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others. You can’t track anything if people stop using the technology. Think about it…

  2. alfred bjam

    I think the terrorist have already won they have taken our privacy and freedom. What else is it to loose but life itself.

  3. Arun Kumar

    Thank you, John. I too heard people are dumping some sites they fear are giving away information. I also have a positive outlook about technology emerging that can strengthen our privacy on and off the Internet. But it is just a hunch.

  4. Arun Kumar

    Well said, Alfred. I guess you are true. They have indeed succeeded in bringing in these things. Am also worried about misuse of the surveillance. Hope something emerges to put us at a better place.

  5. Dan

    Bruce Schneier has often used this analogy re governments which boil the sea looking for the head of a pin, whatever the noble pursuit: “Something must be done…THIS is something…it MUST be done!”. But at this point massive government data mining HAS to primarily be for a purpose(s) other than to look like it’s doing “something” to keep people safe, as it expands despite the ease so many terrorists (e.g., Boston Marathon), berserkers (North Albany, Oregon attempted high school bomber), and malware/other criminals have in such otherwise suffocating absence of privacy. That is, it seems massive data mining does “something” pleasing to governments, but the drive of such pleasure seems somehow not tethered to protecting economic or physical security of the general public.

  6. ErnieK

    I have not trusted either the government [here in UK] nor in USA for a long time. They [along
    with others] use terrorism as an excuse. The fact that I am sitting here in the UK and that everything I do on-line or phone [both land-line and mobile] is monitored by both the UK and an outside [non UK] agency is in itself an act of terrorism.

    “ANYONE” who deliberately snoops on another country is guilty of spying. Will any country openly accuse the USA of this? No.

    Over the past year there has been multiple instances where this [so called] search for terrorist activity has failed. The USA [as has the UK] has been caught out over this but just how many countries also have their own equivalent of this type of program?

    No matter what we [the public] think this will continue and become even more invasive. I take my hat of to Snowden over his decision to go public with this. On the radio a short while ago it was announced that he is to face criminal charges. Are the various governments [the prime minister and presiden tfor example, as they are ultimately responsible for the actions of their government departments] also going to be charged with criminal behaviour? I think not.

    China [for example] is accused of using the internet to spy on other countries. Is this not the exact same as the USA & the UK [as well as others] doing? I think this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

    It is my opinion that this will be the last straw and over the next couple of years more and more companies will relocate outside of the USA because of this.

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