This photograph shows a copy of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the National Security Administration (NSA) information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems. (AP Photo)
For several years, Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have been ominously warning that the federal government has been interpreting the Patriot Act in a way that would shock the public. In a 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they wrote:
We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.
Late Wednesday night, we finally learned what Wyden and Udall meant, at least in part. Glenn Greenwald published a blockbuster story disclosing the existence of an April 25 order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which required Verizon to provide the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls placed by Verizon’s Business Services clients on an “ongoing, daily basis.”
While the document Greenwald obtained only relates to a ninety-day period, ending July 19, and only involves Verizon Business Services clients, it’s very likely just a snapshot of a much broader data-gathering effort by the NSA.
In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was vacuuming up the call data of tens of millions of Americans, from several different major carriers. Greenwald’s story confirms that this effort continues today, and it would be extremely surprising if the effort was only limited to one service offered by one carrier.
The order does not give the NSA permission to eavesdrop on phone calls, but does give them access to so-called “meta-data.” This means the NSA has a massive database of phone numbers and the serial number of the phone associated with it; which other phones it contacts and for how long;and potentially the geographic location of the user.
The order does not allow the NSA to get the names or addresses of the users at this stage, though the government can go back to FISA for permission to do so. Still, privacy experts warn that metadata allows government intelligence analysts to “build detailed picture of individuals’ lives.”
Finally able to speak publicly about the surveillance, Wyden was quick to blast it on Thursday. “The program…is one that I have been concerned about for years,” Wyden said. “I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.”