Leaked Document Shows The NSA Is Harvesting Call Data On Millions Of Verizon Subscribers

from the Verizon:-home-to-nearly-100-million-terrorism-suspects! dept

What’s always been suspected has now been proven true: the NSA is indiscriminately harvesting the phone records of millions of Americans. Various whistleblowers have pointed out that the NSA’s hunger for data has driven it to collect anything and everything it can, without having to submit to limitations placed on other agencies. Domestic surveillance is a full-time job for the NSA, and this order obtained by the Guardian spells it all out in unredacted black and white.

The order… 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…

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.

This order was granted by the secret FISA court, allowing the FBI to collect this data until July 19th, with another copy going to the NSA. This sort of thing isn’t necessarily new or unusual (large scale data collection like this began during the Bush presidency, as Greenwald points out), but this particular request’s scope is rather breathtaking.

The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

This order has no target. It just wants everything. Every Verizon subscriber is included in the NSA’s data dragnet. And while there’s a lack of individual specificity in the data Verizon is ordered to produce, there are several ways the information collected can be manipulated and abused.

The information is classed as “metadata”, or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access…

While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively…

Privacy advocates have long warned that allowing the government to collect and store unlimited “metadata” is a highly invasive form of surveillance of citizens’ communications activities. Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.

A year ago, the NSA claimed it couldn’t say how many Americans it had spied on illegally because doing so with violate the privacy of those it spied on. Now, we can make an estimate: 98.2 million Verizon customers as of Dec. 2012. And that’s just Verizon. There’s no reason to believe other carriers haven’t received (and submitted to) similar orders and past events indicate the NSA has been spreading its net wide for several years. And, of course, thanks to a whistleblower literally showing up at the front door of the EFF, we know that AT&T has basically helped set up direct access for the NSA on its network in the past as well.

The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implemented a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records. A furore erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported 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” and was “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.”

With this document exposed, the NSA can no longer pretend (if it’s even bothering to at this point) its data collection efforts are targeted. It long ago turned away from its original mandate — foreign surveillance only — and now appears to be harvesting vast amounts of data on US citizens simply because no one’s going to stop it.

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Companies: verizon

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Comments on “Leaked Document Shows The NSA Is Harvesting Call Data On Millions Of Verizon Subscribers”

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Anonymous Coward says:

he data is almost useless for fighting crime and terrorism, however it is very useful for identifying organizers of political and protest movements. Knowing who is talking to who, allows identification of higher level organizers, those that co-ordinate activities at a regional and country level.
This make it much easier to disrupt protests.

Anonymous Coward says:


It’s been going for years and years, and you only just heard of it ???


“One method of interception is to place equipment at locations where fiber optic communications are switched. For the Internet, much of the switching occurs at relatively few sites. There have been reports of one such intercept site, Room 641A, in the United States.”

“Room 641A is located in the SBC Communications building at 611 Folsom Street, San Francisco, three floors of which were occupied by AT&T before SBC purchased AT&T.[1] The room was referred to in internal AT&T documents as the SG3 [Study Group 3] Secure Room. It is fed by fiber optic lines from beam splitters installed in fiber optic trunks carrying Internet backbone traffic[3] and, as analyzed by J. Scott Marcus, a former CTO for GTE and a former adviser to the FCC, has access to all Internet traffic that passes through the building, and therefore “the capability to enable surveillance and analysis of internet content on a massive scale, including both overseas and purely domestic traffic.”[4] Former director of the NSA?s World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, William Binney, has estimated that 10 to 20 such facilities have been installed throughout the nation”


Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Echelon

Actually Echalon has been going on far longer than that, though its mission has been expanded over the years. It goes as far back as 1947.

I am not certain this is a function of Echelon though. This is a supplement to Echelon’s functions. Cell phones are a lot harder to keep track of than hard lines.

Anyone who believes their communications aren’t being monitored is incredibly naive. Why do you think they keep fighting for back doors to encryption systems, skype… You don’t fight for that unless you feel you are missing out on a lot of information (that you once had unfettered access to).

Anonymous Coward says:

Three things

Either this is a one-off, and it leaked, or this is the first leak from a program that has been ongoing.

In my assessment, the latter is far more probable, and I am confident of three things:

1) Verizon is not the only telco to be asked to provide data. This is probably widespread.

2) The first leak is not the first request ? this has been going on for a while. Several years of every-three-months-the-judge-renews-permission.

3) Whoever leaked this document is going to prison.

That said, the architecture of the resulting data must be fascinating. Hundreds of millions of links between people, with times and places.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Please explain

Could anyone tell me what a terrorist calling pattern looks like?

It looks like millions of people calling their U.S. representative up and demanding impeachment of the NSA director.

The staffers are just trickling into the offices in D.C. at this time of the morning, but you can leave a voicemail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Please explain

“Could anyone tell me what a terrorist calling pattern looks like?”

They usually say anti-american things like “security theatre”, make mentions to corruption in Washington and make lots of references to the year 1984.

What? You actually think that the NSA is trying to protect you? Hah! Their job is to defend their bosses: corporations and their political lap dogs.

James (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The NSA has these new-fangled things called computers, that allow them to look at the data faster than humans can. Depending on what these “computers” are told to do (by people called “programmers”), the computers may be able to compare the call data and make unexpected connections.

I wonder if there’s a list of protesters’ phone numbers somewhere.

Sunhawk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, yes and no.

Yes, in theory a computer or bank thereof can sort down massive data sets to only the information the human user would find of interest.

In practice it’s still something we’re working on refining.

Which of course doesn’t prevent “drilling down” and, once a name is connected to a phone number, start tracing all their contacts. And wash and repeat.

And then connecting the contact numbers to names. And then harassing those individuals to put indirect pressure on the target. Or perhaps making that data available to contractor companies. Or to an enterprising and very friendly individual with a computer and a lack of morals that’s not in the pay of the NSA.

James (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Refining,” as in “making better.” Not as in “never been done.”

A large American insurance company uses a HUGE database of policyholders, claims, physicians, and other data. Their fraud division routinely mines this data for connections that imply the possibility of fraud. On a simple level, it’s “If a policyholder in the zip code 90210 has a claim for back injury as a result of auto accident and sees this doctor, investigate.” In reality, it’s far, far more complex.

With the metadata the NSA has been collecting, at a simple level, it could be “Trace the connections involving three international calls, within 24 hours, of this bank of numbers of “known terrorists.”

So a Chechen-descended American citizen calls home, then calls his girlfriend, who calls her brother, who contacts a veterinarian, who is the same one I call for my cat’s excessive hairball. The calls are each unrelated, but I am now “tagged” as being in the communication chain with the Boston Bomber.

When it works, we get stories like this one http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/22/us-usa-explosion-florida-idUSBRE94L0J820130522 (except for the suspect dies in custody part).

But “I have nothing to fear, so why should I care?” Well, through sheer coincidence, I’m now linked with the terrorists. And should another unlikely coincidence occur, I could well wake up to quasi-military police kicking down my door to ask some questions.

tgaramon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That is what computer algorithms are for. William Binney – “He was co-developer of the surveillance software called Thinthread, which only cost about $3.4 million and was intentionally designed to prevent monitoring of ?US persons? without a warrant. NSA Director Michael Hayden preferred a competing concept called Trailblazer that intentionally enabled monitoring without warrants, ended up costing $6-8 billion, and was never deployed”


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

They don’t have the manpower currently, but with their new datacenter – it may be possible. Think about this for a second: the NSA will simply use an algorithm to detect certain words or phrases which are “of interest,” then they again run algorithmic searches and analysis of the data. Finally it gets handed off to an investigator.

I have doubts about how accurate these algorithms might be, as well as there data storage capacity – but who knows. The whole organization is secret, and has probably changed quite a bit since Binney left.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The big issue with this approach is that it generates lots and lots of false positives, and almost no good leads.
For example, many would be authors are likely to be researching guns, bomb making etc, from their home connection, so that they can try to write a reasonably accurate piece of fiction. Any would be terrorist, with half a brain, would carry out such research using public WIFI to connect. Guess which one the data surveillance identifies? Identifying the real suspect requires man power, and someone careless enough to the same hot spot frequently.

out_of_the_blue says:

Recycled News at Techdirt.

“This sort of thing isn’t necessarily new or unusual (large scale data collection like this began during the Bush presidency, as Greenwald points out),”

One day, years from now, this minion will wake up and gasp, “OMG! Google is collecting and collating data on ME!”

This is why to not let gov’t and mega-corps become large, let alone merge. Not easy to get them back under control once have tasted power.

Take a loopy tour of Techdirt.com! You always end up same place!
Techdirt’s official motto: This isn’t surprising.

James (profile) says:

If you haven't spoken up ...

If you’re an American voter …
You can email your senators and congressman from their officially provided web sites. You can get there via:



It only takes a couple of minutes to let your voice be heard.
Speak up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: If you haven't spoken up ...

Just called my representative’s office in D.C., now that it’s after 9am Eastern.

Spoke to a staffer. Told her I was outraged that this call I was making to my representative was being monitored by the NSA. Said my immediate reaction was to call for the NSA director’s impeachment.

No immediate response from Congressman’s office. Staffer said they’ll get back to me in writing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Thanks Obama ….

“Each American president since the start of the Cold War (or, truthfully, since the start of World War II) has always only expanded, and never restricted the powers of the NSA and the rest of the national security state. Congress, which is supposed to be offering oversight, has not seriously acted to restrict intelligence gathering activities since that first FISA bill. Indeed, given multiple opportunities to amend the act, Congress, since 9/11, has only endorsed and legalized the actions of the NSA.”


Alt0 says:

Being a phone call (of all things in light of this information) will go to those who knew well ahead of the public (and in some cases supported it) I can not see how that will help things much. In the Media report I saw this morning they stated that “Key Members” were aware of the action. In all likelihood we would need to fire just about everyone in Washington (and most likely elsewhere)in order to clear the misguided and corrupt from our government.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The official said telephone data “allows counterterrorism 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.?”

Source: LA Times http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-obama-defends-verizon-data-collection-20130606,0,4449398.story

The real problem here is that they are getting everyone’s information rather than the records from the calls targeting specific numbers or people known to be terrorists.

If you are simply collecting data to track people who talk to known terrorists, what is the other data being collected for?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you are simply collecting data to track people who talk to known terrorists, what is the other data being collected for?

The thing that most terrifies politicians is losing power, therefore any political activism that threatens their power is terrorism. Threatening political activists are the terrorists that this data collection is meant to identify.
/Conspiracy theory?

Anonymous Coward says:

Way Back

This goes way,way back.

Before it was the mafia (J Edgar)
Then it was the commies (McCarthy)
Then it was the Anti war protesters (Nixon)
Then it was the civil rights movement (LBJ)
Then it was the druggies (Nixon again)
Then it was….
Ever since we “defeated” the commies we needed a new enemy.
Now we have one…the Feds

In spite of all the outrage this will cause today, it will be business as usual tomorrow and no one will cancel their Verizon service.There’s no place to go with your locked phone that you can’t turn off and the expensive contract you signed.
Don’t you just love all this modern technology and all the Geeks and nerds that made it possible?

They got ya by the balls and they know it!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Way Back

There’s no place to go with your locked phone that you can’t turn off

You can always yank the battery or put the phone into one of those Faraday cage pouches.

Don’t you just love all this modern technology and all the Geeks and nerds that made it possible?

This isn’t a technology problem. This is a political problem. This sort of thing has been happening ever since politics were invented.

I think this is an important point, because if you blame technology for this then you’re more likely to be blind to it when it happens in a low-tech way. Remember East Germany before the wall came down?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Way Back

It became a political issue because of the technology.

Oh. Look what we can do now, and nobody will even know.

If someone with the technical expertise to “do it” is willing, the politicians want it, it’s just a matter how much and when can I get it.

You can say that it is a political problem (and I agree in part) but if the people with the skills refuse, then what.

Before all this technology was available to law enforcement how in the world did they ever catch the bad guys?

I guess the thing that bothers me the most in all this is the Feds motto of “Damn the constitution and full speed ahead”

Rick Smith (profile) says:

I fell like I'm on the train to crazy land...

Its scary but every time I read a story like this, I get a little closer to the belief that all of our privacy rights need to be revoked. This includes ALL individuals and institutions. A part of me is coming to believe that the only way to go forward and not lose total freedom is to live in a world without secrets. This way everyone can become the watcher.

Even the idea that some information needs to be kept secret to protect people and/or to catch criminals is quickly becoming secondary.

I’m not there yet, but I am close.

I’ve a feeling that we the citizens long ago lost a war we didn’t even know we were fighting and only the invention of the Internet and the flow of information that it has allowed awoke us to this fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ingress players look like terrorists

I’m part of an Ingress faction that routinely communicates using text messages, cellphone calls, and other electronic forms of communication. I only meet the other players as part of the game and we have no other connections to each other in our personal and professional lives.

When we decide to attack the other faction, we use violent phrases like “blow them up”, “detonate”, and “destroy”. We’re usually talking about and closinfpublic places and significant landmarks.

Anonymous Coward says:

I vote the other way. I am willing to give up my metadata if it will save one Americans life. They may not of caught any terrorist with this info yet but there is a possibility. I didn’t say I was willing to give up all my rights, just this one. There are times to draw a line in the sand, jump up and down screaming but this isn’t that time.

Lets say they stop doing any surveillance that Mike and his lambs don’t like and they miss an opportunity to stop a bombing. 1000’s are killed but your metadata is safe. You ok with that? If you said yes to that than I hope that you are near the blast center.

Anonymous Coward says:

When you put it together, it's even scarier

If you combine this story with the IRS scandal and the treatment of whistleblowers in general, you see how it can be truly dangerous.

When the government collects all of this data, what’s to stop some “low level employees” from targeting people from one political party? Normally it’s whistleblowers. But what if everyone willing to whistleblow has been purged (or you can catch them because you know that they’ve just called a reporter?) And Verizon won’t even notice at that point; they’re already giving up data on EVERYONE, so they won’t be able to tell what the government is doing with it or who is being targeted.

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