Since April 25, and running through July 19, Verizon has been giving the National Security Agency (NSA) daily information on all calls, both domestic and international. First reported by The Guardian, this transference of data comes after a "top secret court order issued in April."
So what, exactly, is Verizon handing over after you call your mom to wish her a Happy Mother's Day? Both of your phone numbers are logged, as is your "location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls." It's your calls' metadata: data that describes other data, the information that describes your call. It's exactly what the U.S. government (or anyone, for that matter) needs to figure out who you are talking to, how frequently you talk to them, and from where. The fact that your conversations' contents are not covered, logged or reported should give you no comfort -- the metadata paints a remarkably accurate picture of your communications. And, in the presence of other data, call content can be inferred.
A History of a Lack of Privacy
This sort of logging isn't without precedent. In 2006, USA Today published a report that the NSA had "been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth" and "using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity."
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) order (which The Guardian has posted in its entirety) shows that "for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk -- regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing." This was something we saw under President Bush's administration, as officials in security agencies shared the extent to which the NSA collected call records.
The Guardian's report was published on Wednesday, and still poses a number of questions. Are other wireless providers sharing information as well? Have they already done so? Are they going to in the future? What does this mean for the future or privacy? There are a lot of questions right now and not many answers. All government agencies contacted by The Guardian declined to comment.
So How Did This Happen?
A highly classified court approved the request. The decision was a legal interpretation of the Patriot Act (2001). But what's frightening is that the court's interpretation of the Patriot Act is itself classified, which means we have no idea how the court views the Patriot Act. An article on Bloomberg explains:
Section 215 of the Patriot Act says the government can order turnover of "any tangible things" for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine spying, provided only that the activities under investigation aren't solely protected by the First Amendment. Read narrowly, this language might require that information requested be shown to be important or necessary to the investigation. Read widely, it would include essentially anything even slightly relevant -- which is to say, everything. Like metadata for every call every day and every second in the U.S.
While we don't know exactly how this classified court views the Patriot Act, the breadth of the data collection indicates that the court views it in the broadest possible sense. (That same Bloomberg article further examines why this is so scary and antithetical to the concept of democracy, but it strays a bit from the focus of online privacy and more so into the realm of politics.)
Another Step Down the Privacy Rabbit Hole
Between this report, the possibility of having any of our e-mails older than 180 days read any government agency that requests it and Microsoft's Xbox One providing gamers with more privacy concerns than anticipation for new games, we need to start an earnest dialog about security and privacy in a connected world.
The order granted to the FBI by the secret FISC, "giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19." The fact that there's no cap on the number of records that Verizon will hand over to the NSA, along with the broad nature of the request (collecting data from everyone, rather than only individuals suspected of terrorism or other crimes) is not only unusual -- it's scary.
Some people, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D - Nevada), say this isn't a big deal. Reid says that this was a routine request made under congressionally-approved laws: "Right now I think everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn't anything that is brand new, it's been going on for some seven years, and we have tried to often to try to make it better and work and we will continue to do that." Senator Saxby Chambliss (R - Georgia), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed with Reid and said, "this is nothing particularly new."
We Have Politicians On Our Side
Similar to Senator Patrick Leahy fight to repeal the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, there are representatives in Washington fighting for our privacy. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R - Wisconsin), who was one of the authors of the Patriot Act, said in a letter he wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder last Thursday saying he was "extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act." Sensenbrenner defends the Patriot Act, but also has "always worried about potential abuses."
Two senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden (D - Oregon) and Mark Udall (D - Colorado) appear in the newly-published court order, crying out against the "the scope of the Obama administration's surveillance activities." Their main point of contention is about the "business records" provision of the Patriot Act, arguing in a letter to Attorney General Holder last year that, "there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows," criticizing the Obama administration's interpretation of that section.
The Guardian says that for the past two years, Wyden and Udall have been "stridently advising the public that the U.S. government is relying on 'secret legal interpretations' to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be 'stunned' to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted."
Consider us stunned.