NSA Is Seizing Millions of Verizon Phone Records

White House defends 'ongoing, daily' surveillance as a 'critical tool'
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 6, 2013 2:11 AM CDT
Updated Jun 6, 2013 7:47 AM CDT
NSA Gathering Millions of US Phone Records
The headquarters for Verizon Communications Inc. is shown in midtown Manhattan Saturday, April 9, 2005 in New York file photo.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, FILE)

A new report in the Guardian suggests the Obama administration isn't so different from its predecessor when it comes to domestic phone surveillance: The National Security Agency has been gathering the phone records of millions of US Verizon users thanks to a secret court order. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the order April 25, calling on Verizon to hand over data on phone calls within the US and from the US to other countries on an "ongoing, daily basis"; the order stands until July 19, the Guardian reports. The data include the phone numbers at both ends of a conversation, call time and length, user location information, and other identifying features; the court order doesn't, however, call for the conversation's actual content. Because the data is labeled "metadata," there's no need for warrants for each call.

The project's legality hinges on a measure in the Patriot Act noted in a series of warnings from two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, regarding government surveillance based on "secret legal interpretations." The White House defended the move to both the AP and Politico today, though in both cases the anonymous White House official cited did not actually confirm the Guardian's report. The AP source calls the collected records "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." Politico's says "all three branches of government" approve of the policy. Needless to say, reactions from elsewhere have not been kind:

  • The ACLU calls the practice "beyond Orwellian," the Huffington Post reports.
  • Udall wouldn't comment on the details, but called such surveillance "shocking." On Twitter, Al Gore went with "obscenely outrageous."
  • The Center for Constitutional Rights notes, "this single order covering millions of people is a deceptive end-run around" the Patriot Act's requirements.
  • A rep for another civil liberties group says it "looks like the largest assault on privacy since the NSA wiretapped Americans" under Bush, the New York Times reports.
Click for the Guardian's full report, which notes that it's not clear whether other phone companies are facing similar orders. (More national security stories.)

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