An article by Glenn Greenwald in UK's The Guardian has uncovered that the National Security Agency in the United States has been coercing communications mega-corporation Verizon into handing over information on all phone calls from Verizon's almost 116 million customers. Obama says the tactic is an important tool in the war against terrorism, but is it really?
Here is what you need to know.
1. The United States is Forcing Verizon to Hand Over Everybody's Phone Records
The classified document procured by The Guardian compels Verizon to hand over to the NSA "on an ongoing daily basis" information known as metadata. Metadata refers to tangible information like:
the 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.
Verizon's General Counsel Randy Mitch responded in a statement saying,
Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy. Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.
2. It is Supposed to Help Fight Terrorism
The Obama administration defended the practice today when President Obama said that it is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States". By procuring all of Verizon information, the NSA would be building a major database of information allowing them to search through records of phone calls at any time. Even if you do not plan to commit an act of terror, the government is still recording your information, just in case you do.
3. It Applies Only to Phone Calls in the United States
The order only calls for the handing over of information on all domestic phone calls, or phone calls going to or from the United State and foreign nation. As the NSA is a domestic organization, recovering the phone calls made and recieved exclusively overseas could fall into the jurisdiction of the Central Intelligence Agency.
4. The Information Appears to Come From a Classified Document
According to the document above, it should not have been declassified until April 12, 2038. The order forcing Verizon to hand over information is set to expire on July 19, 2013.
5. Roger Vinson Signed the Order
This is a troubling one. Roger Vinson is the judge of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Why would a judge residing over cases regarding foreign intelligence sign an order compelling the production of domestic information? It could turn out that the government is using the fact that Verizon phone calls going in between the United States and other countries are also subject to the rule, putting the order into the purview of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
6. Newt Gingrich Responded
Newt Gingrich went on CNN last night to justify the United State's use of court order to compel Verizon to hand over phone records. He explained that with attacks like those planned out in Boston, or the attempted attack on Times Square in 2010, this sort of intelligence gathering is necessary. However, he did say that the tactic is palatable as long as it continues to serve the NSA in matters or terrorism. Gingrich said he would be concerned if domestic phone records were utilized to uncover "criminal behavior."
7. We Still Do Not Really Know Who the Government Considers a Terrorist
Using the justification that this information will only be used to fight terrorism means almost nothing because we still do not know what makes a person a terrorist in the eyes of the government. Take for example, the 2012 incident concerning Anarchists in Portland, Oregon. After vandalism occurred at a May Day Rally, the FBI and an Anti-Terrorist task force broke into the homes of two local Anarchists to search for:
Left behind at one of the homes was a search warrant affidavit that said agents were looking for anti-government or anarchist literature or material; black clothing, backpacks, face coverings and shoes; green, red, black, grey or blue/purple paint; sticks and flags carried during the commission of the offenses and material for making flags; computers, cell phones and electronic storage media, and flares or similar incendiaries, the Oregonian reported.
The justification of the action? Anti-terrorism.
8. The Government Has Responded
This morning, The Week received abridged and condensed talking points from an unnamed government official. The points respond to the concerns raised over the Verizon-NSA scandal.
Two senators on the Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) came out in support of the NSA this morning. Feinstein said of the procurement of the Verizon's records, "It’s called protecting America."
9. The Government Could be Recording Your Phone Calls
On CNN last month, Tim Clemente a former FBI counter-terrorism agent was asked about the phone calls made between Boston Bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife. Although there was no voice message and the wife was not cooperating, Clemente said that the FBI had the capabilities to listen to the phone calls. The Guardian picked up on the fact that he said, on television, that the FBI could recover the phone call that was made a week earlier. They quote the interview as:
What this means: The government could be recording all your phone calls.
10. This Has Been Happening Since 2006.
BREAKING: Senator confirms NSA collection of phone records is a renewal of an ongoing practice.
— The Associated Press (@AP) June 6, 2013
Although the document compels Verizon to hand over information only between April 25, 2013 and July 19, 2013, The Washington Post is now reporting that the practice has likely been happening since 2006 during the Bush administration, according to a confidential source.