If You Have Verizon, the NSA Has Been Secretly Collecting Your Phone Records

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PALM BEACH, FL - JULY 20:  In this handout provided by The White House, President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan during the motorcade ride to Palm Beach International Airport July 20, 2012 in Palm Beach, Florida.. The President called Mayor Hogan to offer his condolences and support to the Aurora community. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
Photo: The White House/2012 The White House

The scandal over the Obama administration's surveillance of reporters hasn't really captured the attention of the American public, but perhaps this will do the trick. The National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of every Verizon customer in the United States, according to a secret court order obtained by The Guardian. The document directs Verizon to give the government information on all calls in its systems on an "ongoing, daily basis." The indiscriminate collection of phone records in bulk was implemented post-9/11 (and widely criticized when uncovered in 2006), but this is the first evidence that the practice has continued under the Obama administration.

The document states that Verizon must turn over "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata'," both "between the United States and abroad" and "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." Metadata includes the "originating and terminating number," the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, calling card numbers, and the call's time and duration. It does not include the content of the calls or Verizon subscribers' names and addresses, though it may include data on the nearest cell tower used during the call.

The order, marked "top secret," is dated April 25 and allows the government to collect the data through July 19. It was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which states the order is justified under the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to obtain various "business records." Verizon is banned from informing the public of the records request.

It's unclear if orders were issued to other cell-phone providers, or if collection went on for longer than three months. Though, it seems somewhat unlikely that throughout the Obama administration the NSA has only requested data from one carrier, and for one short period of time. So don't feel left out if you don't use Verizon, because your data is probably sitting in an NSA database somewhere too.