US spy agency, the NSA, is conducting mass surveillance of American citizens’ telephone communications thanks to a secret court order
A political storm is brewing for President Obama after a British newspaper revealed the NSA is conducting wholesale spying on the communications data of American citizens.
The revelation was exposed by the Guardian newspaper, when it found the National Security Agency (NSA) is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon.
NSA comms data mining
Verizon is one of the leading telecom operators in the United States, which means that the communications “meta data” of millions of Americans is being scrutinised by the NSA, without people even being aware of the intrusion, and regardless of whether they are suspected in any wrong doing.
According to the Guardian, a secret court order was issued on 25 April and was signed by Judge Roger Vinson for the secret Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court order lasts until 19 July, and it means that Verizon is obliged to hand over, on an “ongoing, daily basis”, all information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The court order allows the NSA to examine and mine all the ‘meta data’ of these communications. This means that the NSA has access to the telephone numbers of both parties on a call, as well as location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls.
However, the content of the conversations are not covered by the court order.
And the court order also contains a gagging clause, requiring that “no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order.”
The Guardian approached both the White House, NSA, the Department of Justice and Verizon for their responses, but all refused to comment on the issue.
This is not the first time that American citizens have been subjected to mass surveillance by its government. After the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush undertook similar large-scale collection of comms data thanks to the powers granted under the Patriot Act.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is highly controversial because it allows the government to seek secret court orders for the production of “any tangible thing” relevant to a foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigation. Recipients of Section 215 orders are expressly prohibited from disclosing the fact they gave the government customers’ records.
All this will likely become a political problem for President Obama in the weeks ahead, given this is the first time his administration has been caught carrying out such mass surveillance.
Already civil liberties groups are up in arms over the issue.
“From a civil liberties perspective, the programme could hardly be any more alarming,” said Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director. “It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents.”
“It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”.
“Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate a full investigation,” said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.
Another pressure group also warned that action must now be taken.
“Today, the Guardian newspaper confirmed what EFF (and many others) have long claimed: the NSA is conducting widespread, untargeted, domestic surveillance on millions of Americans,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a blog posting. “This revelation should end, once and for all, the government’s long-discredited secrecy claims about its dragnet domestic surveillance programs. It should spur Congress and the American people to make the President finally tell the truth about the government’s spying on innocent Americans.”
And former Vice President Al Gore also waded into the debate. “In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” he tweeted.
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