The Guardian revealed Wednesday that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers since April. A top secret court order directs the telecommunications company to provide the agency with the information for a three-month period, expiring July 19.
Under the order, Verizon must provide the phone numbers of both parties on a call, location data, unique identifiers and the time and duration of calls. This applies to calls both within the United States and placed to an international number. The actual content of the calls is not provided to the FBI under the order.
The order is unusual for the fact that such phone monitoring orders typically granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are for a specific person suspected of illegal or terrorist activity, rather than a blanket order made for collection of data on a large number of users. It was sought under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which regulates national security domestic surveillance. The ability to collect such data was extended by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a controversial bill passed after 9/11 that expanded the government's ability to monitor its citizens.
Verizon is prevented under Section 215 from discussing the existence of the request and the court order, and a spokesman declined to comment. It is unknown whether any other cell phone companies are subject to similar orders.
The White House, National Security Agency and Department of Justice also declined to comment prior to the publication of the report by the Guardian.
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the collection of Verizon phone records and said this revelation reveals the government has been interpreting the law allowing surveillance "extremely broadly." Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson said the government must respond and explain the program:
Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate a full investigation.This disclosure also highlights the growing gap between the public's and the government's understandings of the many sweeping surveillance authorities enacted by Congress. Since 9/11, the government has increasingly classified and concealed not just facts, but the law itself. Such extreme secrecy is inconsistent with our democratic values of open government and accountability.
It was revealed in 2006 that the Bush administration was carrying out a similar secret surveillance program and collecting phone, internet and email records. Two senators, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have been cryptically warning of the government's "secret interpretation" of Section 215 for years, but this is the first evidence that the Obama administration was carrying out such a program.
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