One of the nation's top spy agencies has access to the cell phone data of millions of Verizon customers in the U.S., according to a report from The Guardian, a U.K.-based news outlet.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA, granted an order on April 25 requiring Verizon to send information to the National Security Agency on all telephone calls taking place within its systems on an "ongoing daily basis" for a period ending July 19. These calls include those within the U.S. and from the U.S. to other countries.
A document obtained by the Guardian indicates that the callers do not have to be suspected of any wrongdoing. The NSA has received information on the location of the calls, their duration and the phone numbers of both parties, among other data. This "metadata" is considered transactional information, not communications and does not require individual warrants for collection.
The order, signed by FISA court judge Roger Vinson, requires Verizon to turn over "all call detail or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications "(i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
This marks the first time the Obama administration has collected this kind of information for such a large swath of the American public without any indication of specific wrongdoing, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald reports in the Wednesday article.
The NSA and Verizon have all declined to comment to media outlets on this issue. There are more than 121 million Verizon customers as of April, the AP reports, including almost 100 million wireless customers, 12 million land lines and 10 million commercial lines.
The White House defended the program on Thursday, saying it is necessary to protect Americans against an attack.
A senior Obama administration official told Reuters that the information, which hides the callers' identities, is "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," said the official.
The story has already gained sharp backlash from members of Congress.
"While I cannot corroborate the details of this particular report, this sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I've said Americans would find shocking," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., according to a CNN report.
Former Vice President Al Gore called the incident "obscenely outrageous" Wednesday night.
"In a digital era, privacy must be a priority," he wrote on Twitter. "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous? ow.ly/lKS13— Al Gore (@algore) June 6, 2013
The unlimited access for this information is unusual for the NSA, the country's chief cryptologic intelligence agency, says the AP. Orders from a FISA court usually target specific terrorists or organizations, and usually those linked to foreign states.