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.