Expert: NSA phone data collection has likely been ongoing since 2006

June 6, 2013

The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. (NSA via Getty Images)

A leaked court document appears to show that the National Security Agency, a U.S. intelligence agency that specializes in data collection, secretly ordered Verizon to hand over customer information for tens of millions of Americans. That information is something called "telephony metadata," which includes basic information about who you called and how long you spoke but does not actually wiretap the phone call. The order was first reported by The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald.

The court order told Verizon to share its customers' metadata “on an ongoing daily basis” starting April 25, 2013 and ending July 19, 2013. But it turns out that this may not have just been a temporary, three-month program. The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima spoke to an expert who looked at the court order and suspects it may have just been to renew a program that began running in 2006:

An expert in this aspect of the law said Wednesday night that the order appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued by the same court in 2006. The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said that the order is reissued routinely every 90 days and that it is not related to any particular investigation by the FBI or any other agency.

The expert referred to such orders as “rubber stamps” sought by the telephone companies to protect themselves after the disclosure in 2005 that widespread warrantless wiretaps could leave them liable for damages.

The order falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to make broad demands on telephone carriers for information about calls. In this case, the order requires Verizon to provide “ongoing, daily” information about “all call detail records . . . created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

That original order was actually reported at the time by USA Today's Leslie Cauley, who wrote in May 2006, "The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth." Cauley's report continued (my emphasis added):

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

Based on the leaked court order, if it's accurate as it appears to be, it would seem that this effort could still be ongoing today.

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Max Fisher | June 6, 2013