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Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in Featured, International, Law, Media | 9 comments

NSA collecting daily domestic telephone data from Verizon: The Guardian

Updated 9:45 AM Pacific: It’s good to know that watchdog journalism exists, even if it’s on the other side of the pond.

On April 25, 2013, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorized a secret order requiring Verizon to provide an electronic copy of all US phone call detail records to the National Security Agency (NSA). Every day. Of domestic and international calls.

The Obama Administration defended the measure as being a “critical tool” in the “war on terror.” Senators Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, also defended the surveillance.

Feinstein said she believed the order had been in place for some time. She said: “As far as I know this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the [foreign intelligence surveillance] court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.” (emphasis added)

The authority expires on July 19. Several people noted that the timing of the order appears linked to the Boston bombing, but that now seems to have been coincidental.

Earlier this month, we learned that the DOJ snooped on AP, secretly gathering two months of telephone records of editors and reporters. With that as a backdrop, this story is even more remarkable.

What is being collected?

Verizon is providing metadata to the U.S. government, not recordings of conversations.

Note: The order is addressed to Verizon Business Network Services, which is more than enterprise or business accounts. “Verizon Business Network Services, Inc. … serves residential customers, businesses, and communications wholesalers, as well as federal, state, and local government entities.”

Metadata includes the called and calling numbers as well as location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time of the calls. It is a very short step from phone number to a name (“personally identifying information”).

Moreover, research reported earlier this year suggests very little mobile phone metadata is needed to identify a person:

For the study, the research team studied 15 months of anonymous mobile data for roughly 1.5 million people. What they found was that, if they got accurate hourly updates on a person’s whereabouts, tracked by their mobile carrier’s cell towers, four “data points” were all they needed to figure out the person’s identity 95% of the time.

Sworn to secrecy

The order explicitly prohibits anyone from disclosing “that the FBI or NSA has sought” anything under the order unless the person is authorized or needs to know in order for the company to comply with the order. It is signed by Robert Vinson, a judge in the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. (FISA reports to Congress, 1976-2006).

No one from Verizon or the US government would comment Wednesday night.

Executive branch has green light from Congress

Congress has repeatedly failed to stand up to NSA and the executive branch. From The Guardian:

The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance activities.

For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on “secret legal interpretations” to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.

Last year, Senator Jeff Merkely (D-OR) tried to force the executive branch to disclose more about the FISA court interpretation of surveillance powers. The amendment failed 37-54. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wanted to force NSA to estimate of how often it collects information on Americans. His amendment was also defeated, 43-52.

Politico reminds us that 2008 Congress amended the FISA, authorizing much of what President George W. Bush had done. “Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama opposed the legislation during his primary battle with Hillary Clinton. However, he reversed course shortly after clinching the nomination and voted for a modified version of the bill.”

And Joshua Foust pointedly reminds us to direct anger at Congress, which has repeatedly “voted to legalize expansive surveillance powers” and “declined to force administration transparency/honesty.”

We were warned, a long time ago, to be wary of surveillance power. In 1975, Senator Frank Church (D-ID) said:

[The National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.

EFF, ACLU, Others condemn the act

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed two lawsuits related to this discovery. One challenges bulk phone record collection, and the other is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit related to the Patriot Act.

The Center for Constitutional Rights also criticized the order:

As far as we know this order from the FISA court is the broadest surveillance order to ever have been issued: it requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S.,” the group said. “It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel.

I wouldn’t bet against that.

When will Americans say “We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take this any more?”

Updated: ACLU tweet added 8.37 pm Pacific Wednesday 5 June; Oregon Senators added at 8:43 pm; definition of Verizon Business Services added at 8:57 pm; Joshua Foust commentary added at 9:05 pm; Politico point about Obama’s flip-flop added at 9:16 pm; tweet from Tim Karr added at 9:18 pm; subheads added at 9:22 pm; Frank Church quote added at 9.34 pm; Tim Karr tweet added at 10:25 pm; Administration comment and CNN research added at 9:45 am Thursday 5 June.

Follow the reaction of various blogs HERE.