NSA Gains Court Order To Collect Data On All Verizon Calls
June 6, 2013

NSA Gains Court Order To Collect Data On All Verizon Calls

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

According to a British newspaper, the US government has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers since April 25. The Guardian reports the US National Security Agency (NSA) was granted access to the data by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has allowed the culling of records through July 19.

The court order doesn´t actually allow the NSA to collect any information on the contents of the calls, as well as names and addresses of customers. However, the agency is allowed to collect “metadata,” which is the phone number of every caller and recipient, the unique serial number of the phones involved, the time and duration of each call, and the potential GPS location where the call originated.

The court order requires Verizon to hand over all of its customers´ calls every day for the duration of the order. It includes calls made within the US and those between the US and other countries. All call data are being collected regardless of whether the caller was involved in any wrongdoing or not.

This information is being collected on potentially millions of calls every day during the period of the court order. The government has long-argued that call data is not private information, and relates it to looking at the envelope of a letter; whatever is written on the outside is basically public information.

The government further insists that since this data is not personal, but rather “transactional” data, there is no need to obtain probable cause to collect it. And because a user´s phone number is already shared with the provider, it´s not treated as a private matter, allowing the government more authority over collection methods.

It is unclear, based on The Guardian´s report, if any other telecoms besides Verizon are involved in the court order. Previously, media reports have suggested that the NSA has collected call records from all major mobile networks, but currently it seems evident that only Verizon is involved in the latest order. It could just be the “latest in a series of similar orders.”

A senior official with the Obama administration could not confirm or deny the report, according to CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett.

“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States,” the official told Garrett.

“As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection,” the official explained

“There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the Court. And, activities authorized under the Act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties,” the official added in his interview with Garrett.

While the government maintains it has the authority to pry on call data, privacy advocates say otherwise.

Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others believe that knowing who and individual speaks to, and when, and also for how long, it is essentially a form of espionage. This practice allows the government to gain more information on individuals and their social networks. And then collecting information on where the calls only add to the insult.

Ed McFadden, a spokesman for Verizon, declined to comment on the matter. The NSA also declined to comment.

Verizon Communications has listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report in April. Broken down by type, the bulk of customers come from the telecom´s wireless service (98.9 million). It also has 11.7 million landline customers and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order doesn´t specifically say which, if not all, lines are being tapped, according to The Guardian.

The government also maintains it has this authority to collect call data under a “business records” provision of the USA Patriot Act, which was signed into law by the George W. Bush administration swiftly following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.