PRISM: A Technical Analysis

As a libertarian I am automatically suspicious that government agencies may be spying on us all the time, though the story about PRISM in this week has aroused my technical curiousity.

The article in the Guardian appears to rely on a single Powerpoint file of dubious provenance. It was provided by a chap who hides his head and keyboard under a blanket when logging in so his password cannot be seen, despite him alleging that he’s aware of a program that can read most emails and messages on the planet. He is now ‘in hiding’ in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Whilst the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has admitted that there is collection of data on non-US citizens under Section 702 of FISA, he said that the reports in the Guardian and Washington Post “contain numerous inaccuracies“. Also, several of the companies whose data is allegedly being accessed have already denied this.

I am not disputing that a collection programme exists, only that the scope of it portrayed in those newspapers is highly unlikely. I am still uncertain whether Clapper or Obama were referring to the Verizon court order, uncovered the previous day, in their limited admissions.

[Please note that many of the included calculations are rough and ready – I’ve a day job and am blogging this in my lunchtime! If someone wants to pay me to undertake a more accurate assessment then I’m happy to elaborate.]

Information On Slides Released So Far

One slide lists the following providers: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple.

Courses and Types of data available from PRISM

Slide from Guardian showing sources and types of data available from PRISM

The same slide then asserts “What Will You Receive in Collection (Surveillance and Stored Comms)?” and then lists the following: E-mail, Chat (video, voice), Videos, Photos, Stored Data, VoIP, File transfers, Video Conferencing, Notifications of target activity – logins, etc., Online Social Networking details and Special Requests (sic).

Now firstly, let’s analyse what is meant by both Surveillance and Stored Comms. Surveillance means to watch someone, taking note of their activities, such as when they send a message and to whom. Many online are correctly referring to this as metadata, that is data that refers to other data. Interestingly my reading of the situation is that collection and analysis of this metadata many not need a warrant under US (and other countries’ legislation), whereas looking at what’s in the message definitely does. If the PRISM system was just collecting metadata then the collection requirements would be considerably less, though still enormous based on the providers and services listed above.

Secondly, let’s consider Stored Comms. This means storing the actual communication. With an email this can be as small as a few thousand bytes, instant messaging would be even less. Picture data would be huge, and videos would be even larger. Videoconferencing would be enormous – around 1MB of data per minute at least, increasing up to 11MB per minute for HD quality videoconferencing.

Let’s take a couple of examples. Firstly Facebook.

Facebook users are adding 350 million new picture files a day and Facebook already holds over 240 billion pictures (2012 figures). To support this growth Facebook engineers have to deploy (install) 7 Petabytes of new storage per month. That’s 7,000 Terabytes; or 7,000,000 Gigabytes; or 7,000,000,000 Megabytes. A conservative estimate of cost is around $3m per month for purchasing additional storage alone. If hosted on Amazon’s Glacier storage (the lowest price, slowest recovery storage) it would cost $20m a year just for Facebook photos alone!

A second example is Skype.

Skype: Skype does not record calls so for VoIP calls to be recorded the NSA would need to record every single conversation in real-time. Architecturally this is impossible as many calls do not route through Skype equipment, but are still connected peer-to-peer, despite changes to the Skype architecture listed in the blog above. A quick conservative estimate of Skype voice data is at least 147 Terabytes a month alone (based on June 2012 data from the Skype blog above), without any other transferred files or chat.

Other services to consider briefly:

  • Apple: iCloud storage of all iPhones, iPods and iPads with automatic backups enabled.
  • Microsoft: Hotmail (360 million users in July 2011) plus, one assumes, all cloud hosted email via Office 365 (over a million users).
  • Google: All Google search data (100 Billion per month), plus Gmail (425 million active users a month).
  • Yahoo!: Email and searches.
  • YouTube: Videos – one estimate here is 22.7 Terabytes per day.

The cumulative data requirements could easily be estimated from their press releases and blogs, sadly I don’t have time to do this.

Put The Captured Data In The Cloud?

Using commercial cloud providers has been suggested as to how the NSA can store all this data – because “it’s cheap”. No it isn’t. The storage costs would be phenomenal, plus the processing costs. Any data I/O to remote datacentres is even more costly. If the NSA were to do this they would have to host it in the data source companies’ datacentres or its own military-grade secure facility, connected by dark fibre to each datacentre of each data source.

Technical Flaw – Telecoms

One of the slide graphics released suggests that there is a system called ‘Upstream’ that allows access to telecoms data “from fiber cables and infrastructure as the data flows past“.

Slide from Guardian showing 'Upstream' data collection

Slide from Guardian showing ‘Upstream’ data collection

Whilst gathering data from optical fibre cables is technically possibly, it would be very difficult physically and would be noticeable to the telecoms provider due to drops in signal strength. A fibre contains many channels (or wavelengths) of light, each of which will also have many channels of data multiplexed into it. Therefore this single statement alone damages the technical credibility of the presentation. Also there are too many cables coming in and out of the US for them to tap into all the actual fibres. (I was involved in the project to build just one of the existing transatlantic cables a decade ago, so have experience in this area).

If they were just connecting to telecoms ‘infrastructure’ (switches, multiplexers, etc.) then it would be more believable, although this is still pretty much impossible as the data volumes are enormous and much data is encrypted.

To tap into an interactive conversation, as per the Bourne films, whether over chat, voice or video would not be possible in real-time without knowing a considerable number of parameters, many unknown even to the network provider. Recording the data for later reference (with or without court order) would still require phenomenal amounts of storage. Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index estimates global IP Internet traffic last year was 43,570 Petabytes per month (43,570,000 Terabytes, 43,500,000,000 Gigabytes): this equates to 16,700 Gigabytes of IP traffic a second. This would require 20 x 900 Terabyte hard drives a second to store this, costing approximately $6,000 a second!


While I don’t think the scope of data collection from servers as envisaged by the Guardian is impossible, I do think it’s highly improbable and would cost many $Billions per annum (just look up the IT storage costs of the companies above for an indication). If PRISM does exist it is likely to only capture metadata, that is data about conversations. This would still be a considerable amount of data and would require costs orders of magnitude above the $20m cited in the other slide below.

Guardian slide on PRISM sources

Guardian slide on PRISM sources

My personal instinct is that this Powerpoint is a fraud, for whatever reason. Whether the PRISM data collection programme exists is another question. If it does I don’t think the above released information would accurately reflect its capabilities nor its effectiveness. At best, it enables the NSA to search many metadata databases, though the legality of this, as either participant could be a US Citizen, is also dubious.

I still don’t trust any government with access to my data, but I’m not convinced any government, especially the US Government, has this capability. Yet.


The copyright of this article remains with the author. It can be used only if attributed to The New Liberty blog.

P.S. To the NSA, if you ever want to build something like PRISM properly then give me a call, I’m sure you know my number and my billing rates!

The Road To Liberty Needs A Strategy

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”

John Lennon


Sixty-nine years ago Friedrich von Hayek warned of the consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Three months later Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France to start the long slog to retake western Europe from the forces of National Socialism. We now live in a socialist dystopia that our ancestors who fought in that war would struggle to recognise; this is despite the overwhelming volume of philosophical and economic literature supporting the efficacy of libertarian economics and societies. While in many areas we have won the argument we have struggled to make any significant impact towards a truly free society anywhere in the world; various shades of statism occupy every country. So I have been thinking about why we have failed in our endeavour.

Winning The Argument

We libertarians are great at arguing exactly how the minutiae of a perfect libertarian society would work, from policing and courts with contract disputes, health care, welfare, drugs, and even national defence. While we may not agree on the ideal society, whether it would involve minarchy or anarchy, we damn well know how its mechanisms would work in detail!

So how do we get to our ideal free society, or just closer to the free society that we yearn for? Well as the old joke goes “you don’t want to start from here”. That punchline sums up the uphill struggle we have.

If we are ever to achieve our goal of a free society then we libertarians need to define a strategy for how to achieve this fundamental change.

Barriers To A Free Society

Let us start by considering the status quo:

  • Public choice theory suggests that government will be influenced to legislate in favour of minorities who have more to gain from their subsidies, grants or anti-competitive levies than the sums charged in general taxation by the losers.
  • The ‘ratchet effect’ of ever-increasing taxation and/or legislation by the state that needs to justify its increasing budget to meet election promises to its constituents. Few people complain when an additional penny disappears in taxes each month; but the benefit to the state is £700,000, which it will never give up. Reducing taxation requires fighting the many ‘good causes’ that are beneficiaries of this expenditure which can be politically uncomfortable (for example the recent discussions about disability benefits).
  • The power structure unwilling to cede its authority, whether it is the civil service or professional politicians. These vested interests are paid from taxes taken from the populace, so are unlikely to want to reduce or forgo them. This can be seen by increasing salaries, expenses and index-linked pensions for many ‘public servants’.
  • A large bloc of the electorate that is reliant on welfare payments, from unemployment benefits needed as government sucks the productive private-sector economy dry, to ‘tax-credits’, the Milton Friedman-inspired negative income tax, that distorts the market. (‘Tax credits’ enable employers to pay their workforces less directly, with the subsidies coming from the employees’ own taxes and corporation tax.)
  • Democracy supports the status quo, for any who propose radical change cannot get established in the system.
  • Global institutions that require their own funding though cannot levy their own taxes, such as the EU, UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, etc.
  • The corruption of politics, not only tainting people of principle who have to join in with the tribal political games, but the actual corruption of lobbyists and expenses, as displayed in the last few years.

The state has become its own living, breathing, self-replicating entity. I am surprised that nobody has thought to apply James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to a theory of the state: it organises; it metabolises; it grows; it adapts; it breeds; and, most importantly, it responds to stimuli – it defends itself.

The humour of Yes Minister, where Sir Humphrey Appleby is happy to discuss reducing the size of the civil service, but wants a huge task force to study the subject, is far from fictional.

So this is the environment that we have to consider when contemplating any strategy for liberty.

How To Remove The State From Our Lives

So how can we make our ideal free society, how can we remove the state from our lives? Before you get your hopes up – I don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are various approaches that can be considered and I discuss some of them below.

  1. Entryism: infiltrating an existing political party with like-minded activists seems a quick win, as it enables the libertarian to leverage the existing democratic system and existing party apparatus. This was tried by the libertarians of FCS into the Conservative Party in the 1980s, with little success. There are also pockets of libertarians within other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (sic) and UK Independence Party. Sadly it quickly becomes apparent that the existing party power structure will not cede power easily, and often a reaction is provoked that ends any libertarian aspirations.
  2. A libertarian party: The example of the United States is sufficient here. David Nolan who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971 has now given up on this strategy. With only 16% of people holding libertarian beliefs (in the US, probably less in the UK) it is highly unlikely that this approach can ever succeed in isolation. In my personal view even participating in the democratic political system taints the politicians, whether libertarian or not, and no libertarian party will ever succeed (sorry Pro-Liberty Party).
  3. Education: I have for a long time been an advocate of utilising ‘think tanks’ and ‘folk activism’ to educate the general populace of the efficacy of the market and that they state is simply not needed. However after 70 years of post-war state education promoting Bevan’s cradle-to-grave statist strategy, people just don’t realise that they can live without the all-encompassing state. However, I still believe that we need to educate people, weaning them off the narcotic that is the modern state, as no other method of transition will work by itself.
  4. Revolution: Let’s not be silly! Revolution, even with the benevolent dictator model, is more likely to lead to despotism even faster than democracy does. As stated earlier, the state responds to stimuli: in the UK even discussing revolution is effectively illegal – a terrorist act under our legislation. The state defends itself first and foremost, hence the frequent proposal of laws with heavier sentences for cop-killers than for those that would kill us.
  5. Seasteading: Although this is still currently the realm of fiction this method of creating a new stateless society is at least theoretically achievable. The Seasteading Institute was founded by Patri Friedman (David’s son and Milton’s grandson) and has attracted many supporters and investors, including Peter Thiel.
  6. Free States: Jason Sorens proposed the idea of concentrating libertarians in one area to effect political change, thereby inspiring the Free State Project in the US. New Hampshire was nominated as the target state and so far over 1,000 libertarians have moved there; the goal is 20,000 This project is already showing returns, as can be seen in this recent article in Reason ‘The Free State Project Grows Up‘. However it needs an autonomous political entity to succeed, such as a US state that has control over much of its legislation, and it needs to be small enough for the incoming libertarians to win or influence democratic votes. Whilst it is an attractive idea for all UK libertarians to move to a county to establish a libertarian society, it is worthless
  7. Fabianism: The infiltration of the intelligentsia and associated ruling class by the Fabian movement proved successful for promoting socialist ideals. A similar libertarian-minded project given time could sway the body politic, though it is unlikely to be enough by itself.
  8. Do-It-Ourselves: This is my only contribution to the debate. Let’s stop whingeing about the state institutions running our lives badly, let’s create our own institutions and aim for David Friedman’s Market Anarchism. Many businesses already exist that provide the same, or better, services than the state. Let’s publicise these. And where they don’t exist let’s build our own. If we can demonstrate to the populace that private health, transport, social housing, welfare, education, policing and arbitration are more cost-effective than the state’s versions, then how long before consumers vote with their feet?

A Suggested Strategy

I’ve not got any single magic answer to how we get to our objective of a stateless, or near-stateless, society. Personally I think the Folk Activism approach is useful for gaining much-needed support through education, but it alone cannot succeed. Like many other libertarians I don’t think we will ever have sufficient support to use the democratic system in our favour. Whilst the seasteading is the most likely to create small viable libertarian communities at some point in the future I don’t think it’s a viable alternative for most of us. The Free State Project has the most likelihood to succeed to a limited extent, but only within the constraints that the US Federal government will allow it to.

The solution I think is most likely to create a libertarian society is to Do-It-Ourselves. We can only convince the non-libertarians that a society best functions without state interference by demonstrating that to them. We must build the non-state institutions we want to see, and proselytise about those that already exist, here or elsewhere. We must demonstrate each and every aspect of a free society and explain why this is better than the state alternative.

Now this sounds impossible I admit – but we don’t need to eat the elephant whole.

While the state may have a virtual monopoly in many areas, which gives it an inherent cost advantage as it’s funded by mandatory taxes, we can compete with it by innovating, using technology to our advantage by creating new business models. We can be agile and move faster than the cumbersome leviathan state.

Imagine if, for instance, you were to set up a business to offer videoconference access to GPs over the internet using qualified doctors in, say, India? What could you charge for that service on a pay-per-visit basis? I imagine that £10 per visit would cover the costs with a healthy profit margin. What happens when that model becomes successful and increasing numbers of customers prefer that to the NHS? The government would have to either outlaw it, with much public controversy and legal challenges, compete, which is unlikely, or exit the market. A libertarian goal could be achieved peacefully without resorting to democracy or the distorting power of the state. After all if the game is weighted in their favour let’s not play by their rules.

Evolution Not Revolution

The successes of the Free State Project have come at a slow pace. Jason Sorens said in the Reason article that the strategy was “rather than build a new society [Free Staters] opted for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes“. This has proved somewhat successful in that new ideas are proposed and implemented, then can be tested against the objectors’ worries, one step at a time; this incremental approach to liberty is slowly undoing the ratchet effect, educating the people that society can exist without the state’s constant interference. We need to make small incremental changes towards freedom, changes that are testable with demonstrable results. As Patri Friedman says “power has inertia” – we cannot move this leviathan quickly.


We know what we want a free society to look like, but I don’t think that we will get there unless we start planning how to do it. If we just keep proselytising then we may never get to a free society, we need to act.

So this is my challenge to libertarians: go build the new society that you want. If we can outcompete the state, which I believe that we can, then the state must wither and die. We know that the free market is better, in competition with the state we will win: this is natural selection in action.


I started writing this article based on a number of ideas I’d had for some time around our strategy for liberty. Whilst writing I came across a pertinent debate on Cato Unbound‘s website. An excellent essay by Patri Friedman called ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ provoked thoughtful response essays from Jason Sorens, Brian Doherty and Peter Thiel. If you’re interested in this topic then I strongly recommend you read them all.