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NSA Dragnet Seeks Caller Data on All Verizon Subscribers

June 6th 2013

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In a move that is bound to unleash howls of indignation and protest on Capitol Hill and throughout the country, the NSA has obtained a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Warrant requiring Verizon to provide identification data on all parties making and receiving calls on their mobile network within the United States. Political analysts point out that though the (classified) warrant served upon Verizon--which issued from the FISA court on April 12, 2013--is the only one of which we are aware, it is highly unlikely that the NSA's requests were limited to Verizon's network alone. The warrant gives the NSA unfettered access to the records of millions of subscribers without regard for their lack of any involvement in suspect activities. The White House on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s use of a secret court order to collect telephone records from millions of Verizon customers.  

An administration official called the phone data a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States. 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 added.

The White House admission comes after the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday published the court order which required Verizon to provide the security agency with information on all customers’ phone calls, including those not suspected of wrongdoing. The information provided to the NSA did not include the content of conversations or customers’ identities but covered telephone numbers used and the length of calls.

As a rule, FISA court orders are limited to specific named individual targets, or directed at a limited set of named individuals. In this case what is shocking are the broad, unlimited scope of the order--an order that requires Verizon to provide electronic copies of "all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." Verizon is additionally compelled to "continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order."

The order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court covered all Verizon calls from April 25 to July 19. The court barred Verizon from discussing the matter. “The order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls, said the administration official Thursday defending the decision. The court order does not permit the NSA to accumulate any information at all on the contents of any phone calls, nor to obtain any names or addresses of customers.

What is covered is what is entitled "metadata"--the phone number of each and every caller and recipient; the unique serial number of the phone and the SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards in those phones involved; the time and length of each call; and potentially (provided that the GPS function in the phone is active) the location of each of the participants in each call as it occurred.

"The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.” The admission though is likely to fuel congressional concerns over the administration’s privacy policies, coming after the Justice Department admitted to seizing phone and email records from reporters while investigating national security leaks. Lawmakers are probing those cases and Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to review the department’s media subpoena policies to better balance national security interests and press freedoms.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) rapidly issued a condemnation of the order, criticizing the NSA program. “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, adding that “it is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies." ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson also denounced the program as unconstitutional and strongly suggested that lawmakers investigate the matter thoroughly. The ACLU said the program springs from a controversial provision in the Patriot Act allowing Federal agencies to obtain “business records” to further intelligence investigations. 

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), members of the Intelligence Committee, in 2011 said the NSA was using the Patriot Act to collect information on Americans. "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry," Wyden said.

The existence of the Verizon warrant was disclosed Wednesday in a report published by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian. The warrant itself may be seen on the newspaper's website.

Cutting Edge correspondent Russell Grayson is a former attorney, and faculty member at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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