Privacy Law

Is US perusing millions of phone records? Secret court order reveals 'massive scale' data collection

A secret court order reportedly orders a Verizon business subsidiary to turn over all its customer records to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing daily basis.”

The Guardian published the order granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25. The New York Times spoke with a person familiar with the order, who confirmed its authenticity. It requires disclosure of numbers of both parties on calls, along with location data, time of the calls and their length, but not the content of the conversations, according to the Guardian.

“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,” the Guardian says, “regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.” According to the publication, the NSA had collected call records on a large scale during the Bush administration, “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 order covers a three-month period and applies to Verizon Business Network Services. An expert told the Washington Post that the document appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued in 2006. It’s not clear whether other orders have been issued to Verizon’s cellphone or residential customers, or to other telecommunications companies, the Times says.

The order relies on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision that allows the government to obtain “tangible things” such as business records in terrorism probes without a probable cause showing, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Two Democrats, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have previously warned that Americans would be “stunned to learn the details of how … secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act.”

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