7 Things to Know About the Government’s Secret Database of Telephone Data

top secret federal court order reveals that the FBI and the National Security Agency are collecting the cell phone data of millions of Americans.

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Matt Rourke / AP

Correction appended: June 6, 2013

A top secret federal court order reveals that the FBI and the National Security Agency are collecting the cell phone data of millions of Americans. The document, obtained by The Guardian, compels Verizon to send the NSA information about all telephone calls made on the telecom’s network within the United States. Here are seven quick things to know about the secret directive and its implications:

1. What Verizon Shares with the NSA: The court order requires Verizon to provide both the ingoing and outgoing telephone numbers of a given call, unique identifiers of individual phones, the time of the call and its duration. Subscribers’ names, addresses and contact information are not revealed. Calls and texts are also not monitored under the order.

2. Collecting Massive Amounts of Cell Phone Data is Legal, For Now: According to the court, information like phone numbers and call duration is considered “metadata” and can therefore be acquired by government agencies without individual warrants. The court order was signed by Roger Vinson, a federal judge in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and a U.S. District Court judge in northern Florida.

(MORE: New Patriot Act Controversy: Is Washington Collecting Your Cell-Phone Data?)

3. But Telling Americans That Their Data is Being Collected Isn’t Legal: The order specifically forbids Verizon from informing customers (or anyone else) that their data is being collected, stating “no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or the NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order.”

4. The Government Has Done This Before: In 2006 USA Today reported that the NSA had a similarly expansive database of cellular data, not only from Verizon but also from AT&T and BellSouth. That program was launched as part of the push for tighter security and surveillance in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Despite public uproar and several lawsuits against cell phone carriers following the revelation, the NSA never officially announced that the database was shut down. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobbying group that promotes digital privacy, still has pending litigation seeking to curtail the NSA’s practices.

5. The Current Data Collection Could Involve Other Carriers: Though the court order obtained by The Guardian only applies to Verizon, the Bush-era NSA database involved multiple carriers. Companies like Verizon have felt increasing pressure to provide customer data to government agencies in recent years. Cell phone carriers responded to 1.3 million requests for subscriber information from law enforcement agencies in 2011, according to The New York Times.

6. The Verizon Call You Make Today Could End Up in This Database: The court order went into effect on April 25 and runs until July 19.

7. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald Had the Scoop: Greenwald, an American columnist for the British newspaper, has a long history of challenging the surveillance state. Originally a self-described political agnostic who gave George W. Bush “the benefit of the doubt” over the invasion of Iraq, He wrote a scathing indictment of government overreach during the Bush administration in his 2006 book How Would a Patriot Act? During the Obama years he’s frequently criticized the President for infringing on civil liberties.

MORE: Scrambling To Find AP Leaker, Obama’s Administration Vindicates Bush

Correction

The original version of this article misidentified Greenwald’s support for George W. Bush and the Iraq War. 

48 comments
Dale2424
Dale2424

The govt has been collecting data on us since the beginning.  In the early years, the people were of good moral and ethical character, believing that our foundational principles were based on 1000's of years of written values that keep a culture thriving and safe.  It only took a few hundred years to throw off those vales to become the evil culture so full of ourselves that we know better than our forefathers. Its not working politicians!!!!  Geeks, Romans, ,Babylonians, Egyptians, etc rose and fell in the same way that we are walking.  Restoration to our founding  FATHER'S  guiding principles will turn us around.  Stop telling the lies will help also. The sum total of all of man's  knowledge is foolishness to our FATHER.

DianaS
DianaS

The NSA denied the Utah Data Center would collect information on all Americans when it is setup to hold 5 zettabytes of information: I repeat, 5 zettabytes!  The privacy of the WORLD citizens has been wiped out by the US, as it's now fully operational as of May 30.  We can see right through this. These are ruthless people, drunk with power, who will use and abuse all this power. This is to collect all the information in the world and then use it against the people.  It is like a “black hole” sucking all information into it.

The NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

Who really wants to live in the world that is fast coming upon us? Think of tyrants holding such power over your life with all the controls they will have! It is really time for the believers in the Lord Jesus to completely focus on Him and His coming for His church. There is nothing left in this world. Its future is the Antichrist and Armageddon. Our future is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This evil system will be totally destroyed at the awesome Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is be nothing left as He creates His kingdom on earth. May He not tarry. 

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

THERE ARE NO ELECTRONIC SECRETS FROM THE NSA....BIG EARS........KHIII AND NEWER SATTELITES CAN PICK YOU  UP.....

THE ONLY PROBLEM......IS THE GOVERNMENT .....OR THE PEOPLE RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT.......TYRANTS OR FRIENDS OF THE CITIZENS......

valentine....comedian....lol


Skeptical
Skeptical

I have news for you, the government has been monitoring phones for about 30 yrs.  My husband was talking to a friend in another state and joking about some likes and dislikes in the service and there was something mentioned that might have been offensive to the gov and they suddenly got cut off.  We could not call them back and they couldn't call us for the rest of the night. We could call friends and family in other states but not his friend in the original phone call until the next day. So if you think this is recent and big brother has just started watching you, you are wrong.

motherandkids
motherandkids

It does not matter who the President is, this is what the people do not understand, they are all the same Bush,Obama, whoever. The Government  may do away with the Constitution and all rights. 

 Did you know that a CIA agent was arrested for revealing that  Government "Knew"  4 months in advance about a coming 9/11event   The Government tried to stop the event but did not warn the people in the building.  

She was arrested for revealing this under the Patriot Act.  Everyone should see this video, it is an eye opener. 

http://youtu.be/Ioh9jGAk-g8



Sherm
Sherm

Not good.  I'm on Verizon and I sometimes call a friend whose a *gasp* republican.  I hope I don't get audited by the IRS over this!

jlgottfred
jlgottfred

There is absolutely no justification for this far reaching surveillance.  Between this and the IRS fiasco it is becoming reality that the biggest threat to our civil liberties and freedom comes from our own government, not any terrorist threat. Just who/what is this U. S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court anyway, and what is Obama thinking by making such a request?

One by one our civil liberties are being stripped from us. I am really getting upset.

21stcentury
21stcentury

Listening to, synthesizing, and analyzing all this info would be a job too large for even the bloated NSA. It will probably be archived as a resource for future cases as needed.

KountyKobbler
KountyKobbler

May as well   say it all on the front page of the paper   since they will know you better than you know you   or do you remember half of your casual conversations  that  had no real intent other than  to fill time with words  while you thought of what you really really want ;-) and how many times have you  said  glad i didnt say that in public  now that i know all the facts.. well most the facts  wait   is that true too?? or is that an opinion  expanded on  no basis in fact??   and suddenly your opinion changed.

librage
librage

Bush and Obama should both be arrested and tried for treason by the next president elected. Ironically it would likely help them politically since both of these disasters are loathed by large pluralities. As someone who worked for and voted for Obama starting in 2006, sorry. I thought he was Howard Dean not George W II. 

PittsburghMike
PittsburghMike

This order is limited to Verizon and cell phone calls, but there's no reason, given the justification behind the data collection based on the business records provision of the Patriot Act, that there might not be similar orders given to AT&T.  And there may be similar orders applying to collecting the same information for land-line phone meta data, texts and emails, possibly including the contents of texts.

And there's certainly no reason to believe that the name and address of the owner of a cell phone, and its connection to its IMEI aren't known to the NSA as well.

So, pretty much, if you use a cell phone, the NSA knows who your friends are, and where you've been, all the time.

zippylister
zippylister

I took a dump this morning and at the end of the roll of toilet paper it read "You have reached the maximum number of wipes, please take a shower" Signed A'Holes in Washington, DC. 

antonmarq
antonmarq

What??? The government is going to spy on my phone records? What am I going to do???

Meanwhile, you poor and ignorant GOP believers must immediately disconnect their phone, change their iPhone cards and then hide under the bed. Beware, your phone records will reveal that you're hoarding thousands of dollars in savings and that the government want it now. They will spy on your children Tweeter activities and worst yet, how many times you sent a buck at the grocery. They'll know you're eating ham and eggs. They'll know you're bringing your pet to the groomers. They're watching. Hide before they find you and laugh. 

MichaelHenderson
MichaelHenderson

This isnt conversations, just call times and durations. verizon collects that all day everyday. Privacy is a myth. Your D.L., phone, S.s. number, credit cards , where you go on the internet, it is all logged and tracked much more than this. Have you noticed the ads in your browser, how they suddenly advertise products that you recently searched on? That isn't an accident. That is an invasion of privacy by corporate america much more so than this incident. What is more, this isnt congress or even the president. This is FBI/CIA and a judge revewed it and signed off.

BrianSchroeder
BrianSchroeder

Be careful what you comment.  They're listening....

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

The USA has become the New version of the  USSR 

shexbends
shexbends

If you choose to make or accept an overseas call, meaning, a call which crosses our boarder, it's going to be subject to customs inspection.

MaddenMan73
MaddenMan73

Is this really a surprise?  Seriously people...

upsettingthebox
upsettingthebox

Didn't the Nazi's do something similar when searching for the Jews that were in hiding?  Next thing you know the government is going to issue different colored armbands to everyone.

CitizenTrudge
CitizenTrudge

Glenn Greenwald apparently couldn't stand it and move to Brazil.

skybert
skybert

I guess it can't be illegal for phone companies that have NOT received such orders to publicly say so.  And I think it would be a good marketing  strategy: "Check our great prices and services!  And we are currently not under any obligation to hand over customer data to the government!  Sign up today!"  Of course the second statement must be removed if and when such an order is received.

olderthandirt
olderthandirt

Great article Mr. Luckerson! After reading James Bamford's book, 'The Shadow Factory,' detailing what the NSA, DOD, FBI "intercepting telecommunications and electronic communications" both foreign and domestic, certainly opened my eyes to exactly what "Big Brother" listens, collects and stores.  Look at the whistleblowers who have come forward and what the consequences were for: US Army's "communications interceptor, Adrienne Kinne, NSA's Thomas Drake and William Kinney, and Mark Klein, employee AT&T. Verizon isn't the only telecom company doing it. This has been going on since the Patriot Act over a decade ago.

thesafesurfer
thesafesurfer

This data will make it easier for the Internal Revenue Service to target groups who want lower taxes and smaller government. It sure didn't stop the Boston Marathon bombing. 

danielrowland93
danielrowland93

I wonder how many live will be ruined by big daddy government

Rhomega
Rhomega

Well at least I use Sprint.  And never call anyone because I'm so introverted.

jdinsb
jdinsb

A real nutcase.

In 2005 she was incarcerated at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, for psychological evaluation. At Carswell She was then moved to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. In 2006, she was released from prison after judge Michael B. Mukasey ruled that Lindauer was unfit to stand trial and could not be forced to take antipsychotic medication to make her competent to stand trial. He noted that the severity of Lindauer's mental illness, which he described as a "lengthy delusional history", weakened the prosecution's case

jlgottfred
jlgottfred

motherandkids,

You got that right.  Pretty soon it will be "guilty" until proven "innocent."

readerviewer
readerviewer

@jlgottfred:

Not to defend this act by the NSA, but this could be an aftermath of the Boston bombing.  There are software which can be used to detect suspicious intentions based on communication patterns.  I thought about the possibility that they'll prevent the next 'Boston bombing', and I thought about other implications of this.  It takes someone wiser than I to judge it.

dash6000
dash6000

@KountyKobbler   Of course, they *say* that they're only getting to-and-from phone numbers and duration of calls, not what was said.  Of course, we all believe it, right?

librage
librage

@PittsburghMike Cell phones computers tables game consoles internet connected televisions, you know they are all fair game here. What else would that google secret court case be about? The Bill of Rights is being ignored completely and this country is falling off a cliff. Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither. Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security. Remember right after 911 when the Bush administration launched the 'department of misinformation and literally announced it was scrapped the next day?

readerviewer
readerviewer

@antonmarq:

".... your phone records will reveal that you're hoarding thousands of dollars in saving"

Not, they don't.



mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@upsettingthebox The government has been doing this since at least 2006, the only difference is that under this administration they don't have oversees torture camps. So perhaps you Nazi argument would be much more valid with the GWB administration especially in light of the financial connection between his grandfather and actual Nazis.

MichaelHenderson
MichaelHenderson

@thesafesurfer No but it stopped dozens of others. You cant go by the theory that if it doesnt stop everything, it is useless.

librage
librage

@readerviewer @jlgottfred This has been going on since 2006 (and really since 2Ba001). It failed to catch the Boston bombers because it doesn't work. Know who it did catch though? Elliot Spitzer. Banging a call girl. And guaranteed this was used against potheads whistleblowers and every other normal act this bleepin country is attacking. Hooray America

readerviewer
readerviewer

@dash6000 @KountyKobbler:

I tend to believe that Verizon is handling over just the metadata, based on that the data is handed over to the NSA "on a daily basis."  To also capture the contents requires another court order.  That operation is more involved and most costly.  To capture the contents of ALL Verizon traffic in read-time could bring down the switches.

soysucielo
soysucielo

@MichaelHenderson @thesafesurfer  

Exactly what has it stopped? And where does your info come from? Remember these are the same folks with the airport screening machines  that didn't reveal everything until it was proven in Germany that they did. These are the same folks who swore up and down that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Same folks who were at Ruby Ridge and Waco Texas. These people will say and do anything to make you think that they are on your side. They're not, unless you're a very wealthy contributor. The infighting we see and hear about between the parties is just a dog and pony show. They all dance to the tune of their masters, the very big donors.