Politics

Reported Gov’t Seizure Of Verizon Records Stuns Bay Area Privacy Advocates

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The Verizon version of the Apple iPhone. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The Verizon version of the Apple iPhone. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP) – Privacy advocates in the Bay Area expressed outrage over a report Wednesday that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order.

The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and was good until July 19, Britain’s Guardian newspaper said Wednesday. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that he couldn’t provide classified details but that the court order in question is a critical tool for learning when terrorists or suspected terrorists might be engaging in dangerous activities. He said there are strict legal rules on how such a program is conducted and that congressional leaders are briefed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group advocating digital privacy, told KPIX 5 that they were stunned by the report.

“It confirms what we have long alleged, which is the government has been scooping up the phone records of millions of innocent Americans, and that it has been ongoing,” Cindy Cohn, legal director of the EFF told KPIX 5.

“I think there might have been a sense for some people that perhaps with the change of the Obama administration or the fight over the FISA Amendments Act that maybe this has ended,” Cohn said.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment. The White House declined comment and referred questions to the NSA. The NSA had no immediate comment.

Verizon Communications Inc. listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April — 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order didn’t specify which type of phone customers’ records were being tracked.

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of “all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls,” The Guardian said.

The law on which the order explicitly relies is the “business records” provision of the USA Patriot Act.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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