The National Security Agency obtained a court order to collect the call records of millions of Verizon customers, according to a secret document obtained by the Guardian.
The sweeping order, issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requires Verizon to give the NSA metadata on all calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and foreign countries on an “ongoing, daily basis” for three months.
The data includes the phone numbers of both parties involved in the calls, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number for mobile callers, calling card numbers used in the call, and the time and duration of the calls. The order does not include the name or address of the subscriber or other account information, nor does it allow the content of calls to be recorded and collected. It may, however, include the location of the calls through cell site data. Though it’s not in the order, the content and account information could still be obtained.
The classified order was issued to the FBI by the secretive court on April 25 and allows the government to collect data until July 19 and hand it over to the NSA. The order came with a gag requirement that prevents Verizon from disclosing its existence. It covers only Verizon, and it’s not clear if other phone companies received similar orders. With this gag order in place, additional orders may be kept under wraps by other providers.
The document reveals for the first time that the NSA is continuing to do massive data mining on millions of U.S. citizens under the Obama administration — a practice that spawned extensive criticism after it was first exposed in 2006 as part of a secret Bush Administration program that began in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The dragnet collection of data would allow the government to build a massive database of transactional records to map connections and relationships between callers. Although Verizon is not required to hand over caller subscriber information under the order, this doesn’t mean the NSA can’t identify the owners of phone numbers on its own. Intelligence and data collected from other sources can help match the names of account-holders to the numbers collected in the sweep.
The law under which the records are being obtained is the “business records” provision of the controversial Patriot Act, which was passed following 9/11. Although an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008 allowed the government to conduct bulk collection of all e-mails, phone calls and text messages, this involved only communications where one party to the conversation was thought to be overseas.
The court order for Verizon covers all wholly domestic communications as well, which may be why authorities used the Patriot Act provision in this case.
According to the Guardian Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado), members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have been trying to warn the public for the last two years about the Obama administration’s secret and extreme interpretations of the business records provision to justify stunning levels of domestic surveillance, but have been unable to do so directly.
USA Today first reported in 2006 that the NSA had been “secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth” in order to produce and analyze calling patterns.
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” one anonymous source told the paper at the time, saying that the NSA’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders.
Bell South categorically denied the story at the time, but Verizon and AT&T delivered carefully parsed statements that left open the question of whether they had provided the NSA with data.
The recent court order suggests that the collection has continued or at least resumed under the Obama administration.