The National Security Agency, a U.S. government organization tasked with breaking enemy communications and protecting the nation's information technology, has collected data on the domestic calls made by millions of Americans from one telecommunications provider "on an ongoing daily basis," according to a copy of a secret court order leaked to the media.
The court order, issued to Verizon Communications and leaked to The Guardian UK newspaper, allows the NSA to force the telecommunications giant to provide the metadata between two callers, if one or both of them are located in the United States. Call metadata includes information that can identify the devices being used to complete the call, phone numbers and other session data, including information that can be used to determine the location of the callers. The massive data collection was authorized in secret by a special court empowered by amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The Obama administration stressed that the ability to analyze call data is critical to fight terrorism and that the content of phone calls should not be accessed.
"Information of the sort described in The Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," an administration spokesperson told the paper.
Yet, the damage to Americans' privacy outweighs any benefits in identifying possible terrorists, Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told eWEEK via email.
"The benefits are speculative and likely lessened by the sheer amount of white noise that is generated by a dragnet investigation like this one," she said. "The dangers are clear: The agency is collecting massive amounts of data which allow it to identify who you are calling, how long you're speaking and potentially the location from which that call is being made. The metadata being collected is easily re-identified and there appear to be no limits on the collection or retention of that data."
The debate over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has always been controversial. In 2008, the act was reauthorized following an intense political battle that granted telecommunications firms blanket immunity from prosecution for complying with the law. The government's power to monitor and mine data about American citizens has dramatically expanded since the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
The debate does not just pit civil-rights advocates against government agencies, but has politicians in the same party arguing over whether intelligence and law-enforcement agencies' interpretation of FISA is too broad in scope. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued that the measures are necessary to keep Americans safe.
"The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation," she said in a statement. "The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government."
Yet Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) has argued against the broad interpretations of laws, such as FISA and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, used to justify violations of privacy.
"The government's collection of millions of Americans' phone records is the type of surveillance I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it," he said in a statement. "We must strike the right balance between keeping Americans safe and protecting constitutional rights."