US agency collects Verizon phone data with secret court order

The National Security Agency is collecting from Verizon the phone records of millions of US citizens under a court order

The US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting the phone records of millions of US citizens under a court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in terms of the US Patriot Act.

The secret court order issued in April 2013 requires telecoms firm Verizon to give the NSA data on all calls within and from the US for three months, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.

Under the terms of the order, the numbers of both parties on a call, the location data and the time and duration of all calls is to be handed over, but the content of a call is not covered, the paper said.

However, the data would allow the NSA to build a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where.

Provisions for similar powers in the draft UK Communications Data Bill have caused an outcry, stalling the enactment of the bill and forcing the government back to the drawing board.

The bill is aimed at making it easier for UK security and police services to spy on emails, phone calls and internet activity. Campaigners have widely criticised the draft bill as an assault on civil liberties.

The secret US order allows for the communication records of millions of US citizens to be collected, whether or not they are suspected of any wrongdoing, until 19 July 2013.

It is unclear how the document was leaked, as the court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI's request for its customers' records, or the court order itself.

It is not known whether Verizon is the only telecoms provider to be issued with such an order or whether the NSA has been granted access to the records of all major mobile networks.

It is also unclear whether the three-month order was the first of its kind or the latest in a series of similar orders.

The order is the first known instance of the Obama administration monitoring US citizens' communications in bulk.

In 2006, it emerged that former president George W. Bush secretly authorised an NSA telephone, internet and email-monitoring programme less than a month after the New York World Trade Center attack in 2011.

Analysts said the revelation of the order is likely to stir up longstanding debates in the US over the appropriate extent of the government's domestic spying powers.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said the revelation confirmed longstanding claims by digital rights organisation and many others that the NSA is conducting widespread, untargeted, domestic surveillance on millions of Americans.

“This revelation should end, once and for all, the government's long-discredited secrecy claims about its dragnet domestic surveillance programs and should spur Congress and the American people to make the president finally tell the truth about the government's spying on innocent Americans,” the organisation said on its website.

The EFF said there is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel.

The group said is very likely that similar orders exist for every major US telecommunication company and alleges that this has been going on for at least seven years.

“It’s time to start the national dialogue about our rights in the digital age. And it’s time to end the NSA’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance program,” the EFF said.

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