A secret court order requires Verizon to hand over all of its call data to the government, according to a stunning late Wednesday scoop by the Guardian. The order applies to millions of Americans, and allows the NSA to collect phone records without linking calls to a specific individual suspected of wrongdoing. We know that the Bush Administration collected phone records in bulk, but now, it seems, there's documentation of the practice's continued existence.
The order doesn't cover the content of the conversation itself or the subscriber's personal information, but allows the government to collect almost everything else about the call, loosely defined as its "metadata." (If you're interested in what the government can learn about you from this data, check out National Journal and the Guardian's excellent explainers) It also prohibits Verizon from talking about the request for records, or the order itself. The order reads (emphasis ours):
"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. This Order does not require Verizon to produce telephony metadata for communications wholly originating and terminating in foreign countries. Telephony metadata includes comprehensive communications routing information,. including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call. Telephony metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication, as defined by 18 U.S.C. ? 2510(8), or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer."
As the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes, the order seems to explain the repeated warnings by Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who sit on the Senate intelligence committee. They've hinted at the government's surveillance powers are much more broad than most Americans would assume. Orders like this one, which went into effect in April and lasts until mid-June, could very well be what they were referring to.
Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Atlantic Wire that "this is what we long suspected is going on."
The EFF, who've warned about exactly this sort of thing in the past, currently have two lawsuits pending on the subject: the first challenges practices like the NSA's bulk phone records collection (which is now corroborated by the Guardian scoop), and the other is a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit addressing secret court orders allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. "This is confirmation of what we've long feared, that the NSA has been tracking the calling patterns of the entire country," Rumold continued, adding, "our real hope now is that the government will stop trying to hide this fact. We hope more than anything else that the government will allow a judge to decide whether this is constitutional, and we can finally put an end to this practice."
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted the order, signed by judge Robert Vinson, whose seven-year term on the court apparently expired a couple of weeks ago. Don't know about FISC? We have a primer on it here.
While the revealed order only encompasses the records of one company, Greenwald wisely notes that there's no reason other orders, directed at other telephone companies, couldn't exist out there, too.
As you'd expect, basically no one involved in the order would comment to the Guardian, including Verizon.