NSA Secretly Collecting Phone Records From Every Verizon Customer

Since at least April, the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of every Verizon customer in the US. In total, the NSA has gathered data from millions of Verizon customers, including for phone calls placed within the US and for calls made from the US to other countries.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald obtained a copy of the secret court order, which requires Verizon to deliver the information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis.” As Greenwald writes, "the document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing."

The order was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25, allowing the the government access to the information until July 19. Verizon may not have been the only cell-phone network ordered to give up such information; as Greenwald notes, past reporting indicates the NSA has collected information from all major cell-phone networks. It's also unknown if the three-month order was part of longer, on-going data collecting operation or if it was a one-time order.

The information provided by Verizon to the NSA includes the numbers of both parties, the time and duration of the calls, and location data. The actual content of the phone calls was not covered by the order.

From The Guardian:

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls".

The order directs Verizon to "continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order". It specifies that the records to be produced include "session identifying information", such as "originating and terminating number", the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and "comprehensive communication routing information".

The information is classed as "metadata", or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such "metadata" is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.

Similar large-scale call collection operations took place during George W. Bush's presidency, but this is first time an operation of this scale has been revealed under President Obama's administration. Just under a month ago, the Obama administration found itself in the center of another surveillance scandal after it was revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of the Associated Press' phone records.

The National Security Agency, the White House, the Department of Justice, and Verizon all declined The Guardian's request for comment.

You can read the full court order here.

UPDATE: The Washington Post spoke to an expert who said the order "appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued by the same court in 2006."

The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said that the order is reissued routinely every 90 days and that it is not related to any particular investigation by the FBI or any other agency.

The expert referred to such orders as “rubber stamps” sought by the telephone companies to protect themselves after the disclosure in 2005 that widespread warrantless wiretaps could leave them liable for damages.

UPDATE 2: The first wave of anonymous defenses from the White House have come through, via the Associated Press:

The White House on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

Though the "senior administration official" quoted in the AP's story refused to confirm the Guardian's scoop, other anonymous White House aides admitted to gathering records to Reuters and Politico:

The White House is defending itself against charges it secretly obtained records for Verizon phone calls made in the United States, arguing that the policy — first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper last night — is a vital tool in monitoring terrorists and has the approval of "all three branches of government," according to a senior administration official. The order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes the National Security Agency to collect phone numbers but "does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls" unless the NSA makes a separate request, the official said.

Former Vice President Al Gore took to Twitter to condemn the report:

[Image via Getty]

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