We’re being watched. Or listened to. Or recorded. Probably all three. The National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of US citizens on Verizon right now. It’s ongoing. It’s daily. It’s happening right now. How is that possible? A top secret court order forced Verizon to give up the call data.
The Guardian, which got a hold of the court order made by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, reports that the government basically has “unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.” The order was granted on April 25th, so data has been collected since then.
So what exactly is the NSA collecting? The court order says Verizon has to give up “all call details 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 court defined telephony metadata as:
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.
That’s basically who you are, where you are, who you’re talking to and how long you’re talking for. What’s unusual about this blanket order though is that it’s unlimited. Typically, FISA court orders specifically target a suspected terrorist group or set their sights on a finite set of numbers. An unlimited amount of data might be a little excessive. Maybe?
There’s still a lot unknown about the court order though. Is it a one time thing? Are other phone carriers giving up call data to the NSA too? Is this an invasion of privacy? Who knows. Just know that eventually we’re all going to be watched. Or listened to. Or recorded.
Update: The White House has responded, saying that the collection of US telephone records was “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” Which is true enough! But so would putting and armed guard in every American’s living room. That doesn’t make it ethical, legal, or right.