Scope of NSA's phone data snooping is 'breathtaking'

Privacy advocates say reports about the operation confirm long-held fears

Although U.S. government officials said the National Security Agency's efforts to secretly collect phone records of millions of Verizon customers is nothing new, reports about its size confirmed long-standing fears among privacy and civil rights advocates.

"A lot of us had our suspicions," said Ian Glazer, an analyst with Gartner. "But the scope [of the data collection] is still breathtaking. It is a sad reaffirmation of some of our worst fears about what the government is doing to collect our information."

He called government officials' defense of the data collection disingenuous and argued that, in many ways the metadata being collected by the NSA under court order is even more invasive than the actual content of phone conversations.

The data allows the agency to build a detailed profile of every single Verizon customer, especially when the call records are combined with information in other databases, Glazer said. Though the court order does not require Verizon to provide customer names and addresses, the NSA can get that information easily.

Glazer said it's unclear why the NSA might need such a broad dataset. "Maybe it is easier for them to say, 'Give me everything' than be specific about what they are actually looking for."

Controversy about the program arose on Wednesday when The Guardian said it had obtained a document showing that the NSA has been collecting call records of all Verizon customers under a top-secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which was published by the paper, requires Verizon to hand over on an "ongoing and daily basis" the details of all domestic and international calls made by its customers. The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), requires Verizon to give the NSA the originating and dialed number of every call made by its customers daily.

It also requires Verizon to provide other details like the time and duration of a call, telephone calling card numbers and any unique identifiers such as the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity Numbers used to identify mobile phones. The order specifically excludes other critical data like the name or address of the subscriber or the actual content of the calls.

The court order is effective until July 19 and prohibited Verizon from disclosing that it has even received such an order or was supplying information to the NSA.

After the story appeared, Obama Administration officials and lawmakers scrambled to tamp down the resulting uproar.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and other committee members, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss, (R-GA), argued that the order is similar to others that have been routinely issued in recent years.

"This is nothing particularly new," Chambliss told USA Today. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said data gathered by the NSA had helped the agency thwart a significant terrorist threat in the past few years, but he declined to provide any specifics on the threat.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quoted White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that the order was a critical tool for intelligence agencies fighting terrorism.

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