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Millions of Americans' phone records are being indiscriminately collected every day by the National Security Agency (NSA), according to a copy of an alleged "top secret" court order leaked to The Guardian. The alarming discovery seems to reveal the scale of domestic surveillance under the Obama administration.
The alleged order, reportedly issued in April, demands that Verizon give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems on an "ongoing, daily basis" over a three month period. This includes calls made both within the U.S. and between the U.S. to other countries.
(Read the alleged court order here)
Verizon is one of the largest telephone service providers in the United States, meaning millions of Americans are affected by this secret court order.
"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," The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald reports.
According to the report, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) approved the court order to the FBI on April 25. The order gives the U.S. government complete authority to compile all the data they want over the designated three month period, ending on July 19.
Taken directly from the alleged top secret court order:
"IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that, the Custodian of Records shall produce to the National Security Agency (NSA) upon service of this Order, and continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this Order, unless otherwise ordered by the Court, an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records 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."
The order was signed by FISC Judge Roger Vinson, a federal judge in Florida. Vinson also became the first federal judge to find "Obamacare" unconstitutional in its entirety back in 2011.
According to CNET's Declan McCullagh, "Vinson's order relies on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, 50 USC 1861, better known as the "business records" portion. It allows FBI agents to obtain any 'tangible thing,' including 'books, records, papers, documents, and other items,' a broad term that includes dumps from private-sector computer databases with limited judicial oversight."
The Guardian has more details on what type of information Verizon has reportedly been forced to hand over:
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.
The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government's domestic spying powers.
Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.
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.
The White House, NSA and the Department of Justice all declined to comment when contacted by The Guardian prior to publishing its report.
A Washington-based spokesman for Verizon also declined to comment. That could be because the court order reportedly prohibits the company from disclosing the government's request for customer records or the court order at all.
"IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order, other than to: (a) those persons whom disclosure is necessary to comply with such Order; (b) an attorney to obtain legal advice or assistant with respect to the production of things in response to Order; or ( c) other persons as permitted by the Director of the FBI or the Director's designee," the document states.
In other words, you were never supposed to know about the massive data-mining effort. It also means whoever leaked the court order has taken a serious risk.
Perhaps the more important question to ask is: Has a precedent been set where this type of blanket surveillance is now acceptable in the eyes of the government?
"It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks," Greenwald writes.
The NSA is currently in the process of completing a massive $1.2 billion data center in Utah, where the agency will store incredible amounts of various information. It has been referred to by many as a "spy center."
But this is not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a partisan issue perpetuated by a single party.
As Mediaite's Andrew Kirell points out, the NSA was also secretly collecting the phone records of millions of unsuspecting Americans during the Bush administration. AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth reportedly worked with the NSA under contract during the program, which was supposedly intended to track and identify terrorists.
“The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime,” USA Today reported in 2006.
The secret program was reportedly first initiated in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Read The Guardian's full report here.
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This story has been updated.