The National Security Administration is secretly collecting phone record information for all U.S. calls on the Verizon network. “Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls,” reports The Guardian, which broke the story of the top-secret project after it obtained record of a court order mandating Verizon hand over the information.
The contents of the call are not recorded and it is also not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone carrier complying with the massive spying project. The court order concerns all calls to, from, and within the United States.
With this so-called “metadata,” the government knows “the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication,” explains the Guardian.
The Senate’s tech-savviest member, Ron Wyden (CrunchGov Grade: A), has been discretely warning citizens of these kinds of secretive government projects. “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” wrote Wyden and Senator Mark Udall to embattled Attorney Eric Holder.
The order apparently draws from a 2001 Bush-era provision in the Patriot Act (50 USC section 1861). The revelation dovetails similar exposes on massive government spying projects, including one project to combine federal datasets and look for patterns on anything which could be related to terrorism.
Late last year, I wrote about a few actual harms that citizens should be worried about from these types of big-data spying programs. Blackmailing citizens critical of the government seemed like a distant hypothetical, until we learned that the IRS was auditing Tea Party groups and journalists were being wiretapped. Nefarious actors inside the government like to abuse national security programs for political ends, and that should make us all (even more) suspect of government spying.
Some government secrecy is necessary for national security purposes. But it’s justified based on our trust that the information will be used with care. With every passing scandal, the justification for these types of programs becomes more and more questionable.
Either way, this is a massive PR disaster for Verizon. While it’s true that AT&T had it’s own spying scandal, misery still loves company. It’s in Verizon’s interest to somehow implicate other carriers in the spying program. If Verizon is, indeed, not the only carrier, I suspect we’ll be finding out in the near future.
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