When the government caught the Tsarnaev brothers, there were same vague whisperings that they had phone records they could look into. A lot of people wondered exactly what they were on about.
Today, we found out:
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.
The order was implemented ten days after the Boston attacks. So while this wasn’t used for the investigation there, it was very likely a result of it.
The EFF notes that his power was assumed under the Patriot Act. However, the Patriot Act does not allow for this kind of dragnet universal surveillance. It only allows surveillance of those suspected of terrorist activity. I’m a Verizon customer so it’s likely that my calls are being tracked. Unless the government knows about my quiet connections to the Guinness Drinking Front, they have no reason whatsoever to track my calls. The government has stretched its anti-terror powers toward universal surveillance. We were warned about this. Lee warned about this repeatedly. So did others:
The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance activities.
For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on “secret legal interpretations” to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.
Because those activities are classified, the senators, both members of the Senate intelligence committee, have been prevented from specifying which domestic surveillance programs they find so alarming. But the information they have been able to disclose in their public warnings perfectly tracks both the specific law cited by the April 25 court order as well as the vast scope of record-gathering it authorized.
This also explains why several senators from both parties, including Wyden, have been pushing to protect phone records for warrantless searches.
You may remember that a similar controversy erupted under President Bush, when it turned out that they were obtaining the phone records of millions of Americans. This is much more extensive. And I will bet you that it gets a tiny fraction of the outcry that Bush’s surveillance did.
Update: Someone pointed out on Twitter that the Verizon order is the one we know about. It’s likely there are others. Verizon was under strict secrecy to note reveal the existence of the program so others would also be under such orders.