Report: NSA collecting daily phone logs of millions of American Verizon customers

posted at 9:21 pm on June 5, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

It’s beginning to look like the Obama administration is not at all interested in targeting domestic surveillance in any way that might attempt to mitigate its violations of privacy or increase its odds of actually finding people doing something illegal. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice cast a wide net in his search of AP phone logs, was the picture of intrusiveness in the James Rosen case, and now NSA is targeting millions of Americans for daily data collection?

Glenn Greenwald reports on secret court order, issued in April, which compelled one of the nation’s largest telecom providers to hand over daily call logs to the federal government. The information did not include actual content of conversations, but it included everything but:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

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 secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

If you have any calls of a sensitive nature to make, you may want to wait until July 19, when the order expires. Will newly minted NSA Susan Rice, Holder, or President Obama know anything about this until they read it in the paper tomorrow?

TechCrunch notes that longtime skepticism of Bush-era Patriot Act provisions, and how the government interprets them, wedded to the newly more plausible scenario of political adversaries being targeted with such powers is a potent one:

The Senate’s tech-savviest member, Ron Wyden (CrunchGov Grade: A), has been discretely warning citizens of these kinds of secretive government projects. “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” wrote Wyden and Senator Mark Udall to embattled Attorney Eric Holder.

The order apparently draws from a 2001 Bush-era provision in the Patriot Act (50 USC section 1861). The revelation dovetails similar exposes on massive government spying projects, including one project to combine federal datasets and look for patterns on anything which could be related to terrorism.

Late last year, I wrote about a few actual harms that citizens should be worried about from these types of big-data spying programs. Blackmailing citizens critical of the government seemed like a distant hypothetical, until we learned that the IRS was auditing Tea Party groups and journalists were being wiretapped. Nefarious actors inside the government like to abuse national security programs for political ends, and that should make us all (even more) suspect of government spying.

You can read the whole court order, here. It’s signed by FISA court judge Roger Vinson, whose name you may remember because he’s also the federal judge who declared the Obamacare individual mandate an unconstitutional regulation of economic inactivity back in 2011.

Update: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long accused the government of this type of surveillance, says this action is being undertaken under a section of the Patriot Act, but is a clear overstep of the law’s requirement that it be targeted at individuals under some sort of suspicion in specific investigations:

“This confirms what we had long suspected,” says Cindy Cohn, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties organization that has long accused the government of operating a secret dragnet surveillance program. “We’ve been suing over this since 2006.”

The order is based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to obtain a wide variety of “business records,” including calling records. EFF has long criticized Section 215, which sets a threshold for obtaining records much lower than the “probable cause” standard required to get a search warrant.

But Cohn argues that the kind of dragnet surveillance suggested by the Verizon order exceeds even the authority granted by the Patriot Act. “Section 215 is written as if they’re going after individual people based on individual investigations,” she says. In contrast, the order leaked to the Guardian affects “millions and millions of innocent people. There’s no way all of our calling records are relevant to a terrorism investigation.”

“I don’t think Congress thought it was authorizing dragnet surveillance” when it passed the Patriot Act, Cohn says. “I don’t think Americans think that’s OK. I would be shocked if the majority of congressmen thought it’s okay.”

Update: Obligatory flashback with soaring, beautifully worded hypocrisy.

Update: The other obligatory flashback to USA Today‘s reporting on what was presumably the same program, under the Bush administration, in 2006. This is separate from the warrantless wiretapping story, which got much more press. Greenwald’s court order is the first documentation of the practice continuing under Obama, despite the fact he was elected on promises to do pretty much the opposite:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

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