Scope of NSA's phone data snooping is 'breathtaking'

Privacy advocates say reports about the operation confirm long-held fears

Although U.S. government officials said the National Security Agency's efforts to secretly collect phone records of millions of Verizon customers is nothing new, reports about its size confirmed long-standing fears among privacy and civil rights advocates.

"A lot of us had our suspicions," said Ian Glazer, an analyst with Gartner. "But the scope [of the data collection] is still breathtaking. It is a sad reaffirmation of some of our worst fears about what the government is doing to collect our information."

He called government officials' defense of the data collection disingenuous and argued that, in many ways the metadata being collected by the NSA under court order is even more invasive than the actual content of phone conversations.

The data allows the agency to build a detailed profile of every single Verizon customer, especially when the call records are combined with information in other databases, Glazer said. Though the court order does not require Verizon to provide customer names and addresses, the NSA can get that information easily.

Glanzer said it's unclear why the NSA might need such a broad dataset. "Maybe it is easier for them to say, 'Give me everything' than be specific about what they are actually looking for."

Controversy about the program arose on Wednesday when The Guardian said it had obtained a document showing that the NSA has been collecting call records of all Verizon customers under a top-secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which was published by the paper, requires Verizon to hand over on an "ongoing and daily basis" the details of all domestic and international calls made by its customers. The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), requires Verizon to give the NSA the originating and dialed number of every call made by its customers daily.

It also requires Verizon to provide other details like the time and duration of a call, telephone calling card numbers and any unique identifiers such as the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity Numbers used to identify mobile phones. The order specifically excludes other critical data like the name or address of the subscriber or the actual content of the calls.

The court order is effective until July 19 and prohibited Verizon from disclosing that it has even received such an order or was supplying information to the NSA.

After the story appeared, Obama Administration officials and lawmakers scrambled to tamp down the resulting uproar.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and other committee members, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss, (R-GA), argued that the order is similar to others that have been routinely issued in recent years.

"This is nothing particularly new," Chambliss told USA Today. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said data gathered by the NSA had helped the agency thwart a significant terrorist threat in the past few years, but he declined to provide any specifics on the threat.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quoted White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that the order was a critical tool for intelligence agencies fighting terrorism.

Data gathered via such court orders helps U.S. intelligence agents know when terrorists or suspected terrorists are engaged in dangerous activities, Earnest said. The court orders do not allow the government to actually listen in on any calls or collect anything other than metadata, he said.

But for those worried that anti-terror laws could be used for domestic surveillance, the Guardian story was merely confirmation of their worst fears.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who last year warned ominously about the "extraordinary anger" Americans would feel when they learned about the extent of domestic surveillance, today reiterated those concerns.

"I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information," Wyden said in a statement noting that he is barred by Senate rules from commenting on details of the NSA program.

"The administration has an obligation to give a substantive and timely response to the American people and I hope this story will force a real debate about the government's domestic surveillance authorities," Wyden said.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the only really surprise is that it took so long to get confirmation of the program. "There's a lot of people who didn't believe that the government would be doing surveillance on millions and millions of American. Now it is harder [for the government] to deny it."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been a particular cause of concern for organizations such as EFF, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others. FISA was originally passed in 1978 and gave U.S. intelligence agencies a tool for keeping an eye on foreign nationals, based abroad, looking to harm the United States.

The law was amended in 2008 to give U.S. agencies broader authority to conduct surveillance -- including electronic wiretapping -- of foreign nationals inside the U.S and overseas who are believed to pose a security risk to the country.

Proponents of the measure have described it as a critical tool in the fight against terrorism, but critics have said it can easily be interpreted in such a way as to authorize domestic surveillance. One particular provision, Section 215, has caused particular concern because it allows agencies like the FBI to collect business records and "tangible things." Under that provision, U.S. intelligence agencies can collect thing like drivers-license records, phone records, credit card records, Internet-browsing records and other records simply by saying the data is relevant to an anti-terror investigation.

It's unclear how the government has been interpreting such provisions, Cohn said. But in the wake of the Guardian disclosure, the government should explain the legal basis for its blanket collection of phone record data, she said.

This article, Scope of NSA's phone data collection is 'breathtaking', was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Cybercrime and HackingGartnerNational Security AgencysecuritygovernmentprivacyGovernment/Industries

More about EFFElectronic Frontier FoundationFBIGartnerNational Security AgencyNSATopicVerizonVerizon

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jaikumar Vijayan

Latest Videos

More videos

Blog Posts