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Spies Like Us: How We All Helped Build Prism

Freely available software used by Google helps the NSA snoop
Spies Like Us: How We All Helped Build Prism
Photograph by Zoo Imaging Photography

Over the past few decades, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have spent big money to get the latest in spying technology. The supercomputer maker Cray builds multimillion-dollar machines tuned for “pattern matching” and other analytical functions and sells the systems to government agencies. Less recognized is that, in this era of open-source software, the NSA gets direct access to the inventions of thousands of the smartest computer-science minds on the planet for free.

The popularity of open-source software among the latest generation of big-time Web players means private companies disclose to the public much of the core technology behind their data management, search, and social networking services. It started with the founding of Google in 1998. The search engine giant needed to collect and analyze so much data that it couldn’t afford to buy systems from big-name tech companies. Instead, Google created its own open-source software programs that ran across hundreds of thousands of computers. Yahoo!, Facebook, and Twitter have been even more aggressive about open-sourcing their underlying infrastructure.