Verizon records vacuumed up by NSA under 'top secret' Patriot Act order

Verizon records vacuumed up by NSA under 'top secret' Patriot Act order

Summary: The U.S. government has collected millions of Verizon customers' details, including phone call and location-based data, under a top secret order that was leaked to a London newspaper.

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(Image: Screenshot by ZDNet via The Guardian)

A "top secret" order issued by a little-known U.S. court isn't so secret anymore, after The Guardian published it on Wednesday evening.

The London, U.K.-based newspaper revealed exclusively that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has and continues to vacuum up millions of Verizon customer details, including information on phone calls both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Under the order, Verizon is ordered on an "ongoing, daily basis" to hand the NSA the information on all of the call data in its systems.

As of the company's 2012 fiscal fourth quarter, Verizon had 115.78 million cellular subscribers. That's a good chunk of Verizon customers, but still excludes a larger number of overall customers affected by this court order.

The document states that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, known as the FISC, the order was granted to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on April 25. The order expires on July 19 — around six weeks from now.

The three-month order gives the U.S. government agency an endless supply of data for the period.

The data that is being collected on Verizon customers — including cellular and landline customers — includes all call details or "metadata" relating to calls created by Verizon between the U.S. and abroad, or within the U.S., including local calls. This metadata, the publication reported, links into a 2005 ruling that determined that cell site location data is also considered as being under this scope.

Location data of Verizon customers, therefore, is in the NSA's hands.

This includes routing data, such as the originating and recipient phone number; the IMEI unique phone identifier; the IMSI number used to identify calls on cellular networks; trunk identifiers; phone calling cards; and the time, date, and duration of the call.

Verizon customers that are outside of the U.S. and making calls to non-U.S. residents are exempt from the secretive court order. Names, addresses, and financial data are also not collected. That said, it's not exactly difficult for the NSA, in conjunction with the FBI, to work out who someone is from that very specific data.

This comes only a month after former FBI counter-terrorism agent Tim Clemente told CNN that the U.S. government can acquire personal and sensitive data, and that it is "captured as we speak, whether we know it or like it or not."

It's not clear whether other cell networks, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, have been targeted with similar or identical warrants. Key "gagging order" provisions mean that the FISC court order does not allow anyone, including the aforementioned, to disclose the order to anyone.

It relives similar orders under the Bush administration, in which the NSA was ordered to wiretap without warrant U.S. citizens in a mass domestic surveillance program. An AT&T whistleblower disclosed that the cell company was "complicit" in the U.S. government's monitoring of phone calls, Web activity — including history and email details — and text messaging data of U.S. residents.

The wiretapping stopped in January 2007. In 2008, the FISA Amendments Act was introduced.

For the first time under Obama's time in office, the document proves that millions of U.S. citizens and residents are under surveillance by the government — whether they are even suspected of committing a crime or not.

The interesting factor here is that the FISC can order such widespread snooping under the condition that U.S. citizens could be communicating with foreign citizens — which, under FISA, such snooping is authorized. But the key factor here is "residents," and not "citizens." FISA also authorizes widespread snooping on "persons" within the U.S., as long as they are legally allowed to be there.

It was, after all, designed and brought into law in 1978, at the height of the Cold War, where spying was widespread across the U.S., Europe, and Russia.

But questions remain over why. Nobody seems to know exactly why Verizon was targeted with a "top secret" court order.

Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, first brought out in October 2001, just a month after the devastating terrorist attack in New York City, "business records" can be acquired by the U.S. intelligence agencies — such as the NSA and the FBI — in vast swathes with a single warrant.

It also allows any "tangible thing" to be acquired by the government, such as books, receipts, and even privately held computer databases, such as in this case.

Last year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) revealed, while still under U.S. secrecy laws: "We're getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says."

They specifically warned about the "business provisions" in the Patriot Act that allow the U.S. government to acquire vast amounts of data with a single warrant, including medical records, so long as it pertains to an intelligence investigation.

The secret interpretation of the "business records" provision by the U.S. Justice Department led the two senators to speak, albeit within the bounds of U.S. secrecy laws, to disclose that there was a "secret interpretation."

Section 215 has already been used to obtain driving license, credit card, car, and apartment rental records. Such records are not within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment, which protects residents from "unreasonable" searches, because arguably they are not considered a "search."

The Patriot Act provision also means that such an order must be approved by the secret FISC, and can be so long as the data sought is relevant to a terrorism investigation. Such investigations do not require much, however.

Basically, Verizon couldn't do anything about this even if it wanted to. It's not allowed to disclose anything about this order, and naturally declined to comment to The Guardian.

Topics: Security, Government US, Privacy, Verizon

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42 comments
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  • BOOOORING!!

    And??? So all the foil-heads now have one more thing to worry about. The government doesn't give a damn about the pot heads and porno chat line callers, steamy phone sex calls or chats, or even the innocuous and utterly boring preponderance of telephone calls, text messages, and data transfers. That extends to your location data as well. FISA is there to protect the United States and allies from a-hole terrorists and intelligence efforts against the U.S. If you are not a terrorist, calling a terrorist, or calling someone to support a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about! Anyone who believes this is affecting them personally should vacuum your foil and copper lined room and resume communications using your tin-can twine phone, semaphore, or handwritten communications. Oh, and one more thing... stop disclosing classified efforts to protect us!
    Sir3000
    • Are you kidding!

      If the NSA is collecting ALL data from every customer of Verizon, it's not checking it and discarding the irrelevant stuff, it's storing it. Once the government has that information, it has it forever. It is stored on a database somewhere which means that it is available for future use. This means that someone like Bradley Manning could get to it & potentially sell it. The records from verizon probably have enough details to use for identity scams. What are you going to do if the FBI breaks down your door & arrests you because your name and address was used to buy bomb making ingredients. How will you prove your innocence?
      clane_
      • somewhere ???

        ''It is stored on a database somewhere... ''
        that somewhere is Colorado near Cheyenne Mountain.
        .
        The 11th commandment... "Monitor me, monitor you."
        .
        fm-usa
      • NSA espionage on US Citizens

        Very well said! The point here is not about controlling terrorists, it is about violating the Bill of Rights which is a violation no mater what. If the government wants to control terrorism they should start by controlling the borders and visas extended in other countries and not getting records from US citizens. The terrorist problem goes back to the early 1900s when we did acts of terrorism in other countries; so, why start now controlling US citizens? What the US has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya can be consider acts of terrorism taking into account International Law; hence, who is going to punish us for doing so? Any country has the right to do, "within her borders", whatever they want as long as they do not interfere with other countries. We have become a Nazi society if you think about it and will get worst. The US has always interfered with other governments if they do not do as the US says; however, we are dealing with communist societies such as China and France which now has a socialist government as well as Spain...then we can say our government has a double standard. In order to agree with what the government is doing, people must study history first and then stop criticism after all...where is the 1st and 4th amendment?
        Cicuta2011
    • Sir3000 terribly naive

      The government wouldn't be collecting billions of data points just to sort through them and throw them away. This is about profiling which can be used at any point in the future if anyone with access, directly or indirectly, decides that they don't like a specific behavior and needs an excuse to eradicate it. I repeat, the tin hats are not the clueless.

      Also to believe that this is being done to protect America is terribly naive. It is to protect those in power plain and simple.
      Astringent
      • Only an idiot would still trust the government

        Every congressmen, president and 5 supreme court members are bought and paid for. This can't be disputed by anyone with their eyes open. It's a system of legalized bribery and I'm not on either side.
        HateBothParties
        • HateBothParties also

          Well...looks like I am not the only one to be current on governments affairs. A few years back, the Boston Globe published an article regarding Senators, by name, working for pharmaceutical companies and passing laws to favor them. I would say that it could be consider an act of terrorism as they are against the well being of US citizens. I do not trust our government regardless of affiliation as I am Independent and do not vote either for the same reason as you do HateBothParties.
          Cicuta2011
        • Regarding NSA

          HateBothParties, I forgot something as an example. Congress is extending H1-B and L1 visas to foreigners, which in fact are potential terrorists if you think about it but not only that; they are undermining our economy by giving jobs to non US citizens. About 10 years ago or so a Chinese scientist working at Lawrence Lab in Livermore, CA all the sudden disappeared and later on our government discovered he was in China. Also, a hard disk drive disappeared and no on knows who took it and where it went. Here we have an example of a foreigner working at a top secret laboratory and potential spy which in a way is worst than a terrorist. I say that politicians are worst than terrorists as the are against the well being of US citizens.
          Cicuta2011
        • Regarding HateBothParties

          OK HateBothParties, In my previous comment regarding NSA I mentioned about Senators having ties with pharmaceutical companies which goes against US citizens and therefore a kind of terrorism to destroy our economy. Here is the article and link:

          Healthcare senators have industry ties

          Legislators hold stock in Merck, Pfizer, and others

          By Larry Margasak and Sharon Theimer

          Associated Press / June 13, 2009

          Source:

          http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2009/06/13/healthcare_senators_have_industry_ties/

          WASHINGTON - Influential senators working to overhaul the nation's healthcare system have investments and family ties with some of the biggest names in the industry. The wife of Senator Chris Dodd, who is in charge of writing the Senate's bill, sits on the boards of four healthcare companies.

          Members of both parties have industry connections, including Democrats Jay Rockefeller and Tom Harkin and Republicans Tom Coburn, Judd Gregg, John Kyl, and Orrin Hatch, financial disclosure reports showed yesterday.

          Jackie Clegg Dodd, wife of the Connecticut Democrat, sits on the boards of Javelin Pharmaceuticals Inc., Cardiome Pharma Corp., Brookdale Senior Living, and Pear Tree Pharmaceuticals, according to a financial disclosure report released yesterday.


          Dodd is filling in for ailing Senator Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the health committee, which is drafting one of the major healthcare bills.


          Other publicly available documents show that Jackie Dodd last year was one of the most highly compensated non-employee members of the Javelin Pharmaceuticals Inc. board, on which she has served since 2004. She earned $32,000 in fees and $109,587 in stock option awards last year, according to the company's SEC filings.


          She earned $79,063 in fees from Cardiome in its last fiscal year, while Brookdale Senior Living gave her $122,231 in stock awards in 2008, their SEC filings show. She earned no income from her post as a director for Pear Tree Pharmaceuticals but holds up to $15,000 in stock in Pear Tree, which describes itself as focusing on the needs of aging women.

          Bryan DeAngelis, the senator's spokesman, said, "Jackie Clegg Dodd's career is her own; absolutely independent of Senator Dodd, as it was when they married 10 years ago."

          Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, reported $15,001 to $50,000 in capital gains for his wife from the sale of a stake in Athenahealth Inc., a business services company that helps medical providers with billing and clinical operations.

          Harkin of Iowa jointly owns with his wife shares of drug makers Amgen and Genentech Inc., each stake valued at $1,001 to $15,000. Their largest healthcare holding, Johnson & Johnson, was valued at $50,001 to $100,000.

          Coburn, of Oklahoma, is a practicing physician. He reported slight business income, $268, from the Muskogee Allergy Clinic last year; $3,000 to $45,000 in stock in Affymetrix Inc., a biotechnology company and pioneer in genetic analysis; $1,000 to $15,000 in stock in Pfizer Inc., a pharmaceutical company; and a $1,000 to $15,000 interest in Thomas A. Coburn, Md. Inc. Under Senate ethics rules, he can't accept money from his patients.

          Gregg, of New Hampshire, disclosed $1,000 to $15,000 each in stock in pharmaceutical companies Merck & Co. and Pfizer, the Johnson & Johnson healthcare products company, and Agilent Technologies, which is involved in the biomedical industry.

          Kyl of Arizona reported $15,001 to $50,000 in stock in Amgen Inc., which develops medical therapeutics, and his retirement account held stakes in several healthcare businesses.

          And Utah's Hatch, who is on the health committee and also on the finance committee that is writing its own healthcare bill, reported owning between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stock in drug maker Pfizer Inc.
          Cicuta2011
    • First they came for

      Then they came for the unionists,
      and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a unionist.

      Then they came for the Muslims,
      and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Muslims.

      Then they came for the immigrants,
      and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a immigrants.

      Then they came for the protesters,
      and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a protesters.

      Then they came for me,
      and there was no one left to speak for me.


      History should not so easily be repeated. This slope leads to hell. If you cannot comprehend why, read how other societies have fallen in this very same way. So many times, so often the very same mistakes.
      Robert Harvey-Kinsey
    • dont worry

      The patriot act renders the other two branches of government more impotent. we really only need one so we can from a more perfect dictatorship.
      LarsDennert
    • pucker up

      If you took a second to get your face out of the goverments ass, you would see the problem with what they are doing. It is exactly this type of activity that leads to more terrorists attacks.
      Al_nyc
    • Thank you!

      All of the conspiracy theorists and red-necks need to settle down. You have nothing to worry about, unless you are a terrorist, serial killer, child abductor, etc.

      Also, as somewhat of a cellular technology expert, the data collected is not enough to identify an individual. IMSI and IMEI numbers can be used to uniquely identify a cell phone. But they are not phone numbers (which identify individuals).

      In other words, you anonymity is maintained. But the data collected is enough to detect suspicious activity. Once said activity is detected, the government would need another warrant to get Verizon to identify the individual associated with the phone.
      benlm54
      • You are contradicting yourself, when you state that the data can't be used

        to identify an individual, but later you state that, the government can use that data to request more specific personal information, such as your name and address and phone number, etc. After that kind of information is obtained, the government has you by the balls, and you might as well be a terrorist if they decide that, you need to be "controlled".
        adornoe
      • This is Illegal

        This is an outrage and all the minimization is a waste of time
        HateBothParties
    • STUUUUPIIIID!!!!

      Look, you ninny, the amount of records being collected goes way beyond the need to identify any pattern for terrorist activity. There are no good reasons to collect data from 100+ millions of Verizon and other telco records.

      The data is being gathered as a tool towards intimidation of the enemies of the Obama administration. The tactic being used by Obama right now, is reminiscent of the kind of data that dictatorial type governments use now and used in the past, in order to control the population. All enemies of the government in power could be easily targeted for intimidation, and to control them. If a person can easily be identified as an enemy of the current administration, he can also be easily intimidated via government investigations, and could be charged with crimes never committed, in order to remove that "threat" to the administration. It's the means of all dictatorships, and it's the means being used right now, by the Obama administration. This NSA collection of data, in conjunction to the intimidation tactics already being employed via the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the targeting of reporters by the Dept of "Justice", are all indications of a much bigger effort to control Americans, and to fundamentally transform the country from Constitutional government, to a single-rule tyranny. That is the goal of Obama. He was trained by communists,and he has been attempting, from the beginning, to destroy the U.S. Constitution (he did mention that the U.S. constitution needed to be re-written or amended), and to convert the country into a single-party system.
      adornoe
    • @ Sir3000 Don't be naive

      Don't be naive. This is like saying Tea Party supporters dont have anything to worry about from the IRS. This needs to be taken seriously unless you don't care about your 4th amendment rights.
      tnizzle
    • What if

      a terrorist or someone "of interest" incorrectly dialed or SMS your number by mistake?
      You then become a "person of interest" and your only fault is having a number very similar to that of a "person of interest"
      warboat
    • The real problem.

      The government is not interested in most of us, and the NSA probably doesn't care about potheads, porn consumers, or even rapists. What they're really concerned with is people who threaten the government.

      The problem arises because legitimate, legal protesters are seen as threatening the government. Law-abiding citizens who oppose policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, or who want to get powerful politicians voted out of office, are seen by the NSA and the FBI as being no different from terrorists.

      And even most of these people are of no interest to the NSA and the FBI.

      But every once in a while, a citizen rises to prominence and people in large numbers start listening. That's when the NSA goes to its warehouse of data on private citizens, looking for dirt on that guy people are paying attention to. J. Edgar Hoover famously had dirt on a huge number of people, that he could use to pressure them when he didn't like their political activity. Nixon famously had his enemies list and dug for dirt on them. Every decade we find out that the previous generation of FBI and CIA was spying on law-abiding citizens in order to defame people who opposed the folks in power. Every generation of feds claims it's not happening any more, and then a decade later we find out they were still doing it. Classification of documents assures that citizens don't find out until ten or twenty years later that the government has been using its power, not to protect the nation from outside enemies, but to protect those in power from political opposition by citizens.

      The only difference now is that computers have automated the spying on citizens that used to require agents in the field.

      In every country, the biggest mafia gets to call itself "government." And like all the smaller mafias, every government's first priority is to defend its power and wealth against its own citizens.
      daniel1948x
  • KGB

    I can hear comrades at KGB raising their glasses to freedom.

    Seriously, most of the time this does not matter. But what if for some reason some NSA algorithm has a bug and you end up as a suspect of some kind or on a no-fly list or something like that. In real life people were fired due to incorrect calculations in performance reports. Bugs in intelligence algorithms could have much more interesting consequences.
    paul2011