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FAQ: What the NSA phone snooping uproar is all about

Is the blanket collection of phone data like that exposed this week legal? The government believes so. Here's the lowdown.

June 7, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The Obama administration this week found itself in the middle of a raging controversy after The Guardian broke a story about a massive phone data collection effort by the National Security Agency (NSA). Here's the lowdown on what's going on.

What's all the fuss about? A secret court order obtained by The Guardian shows that the NSA has been getting a detailed daily report on all domestic and international calls made by all Verizon customers since at least April. The order requires Verizon to continue providing the data at least until July 19. News of the order has resurfaced long-standing concerns among privacy advocates about post-9/11 anti terror laws being used to justify sweeping domestic surveillance.

What data exactly is Verizon required to provide to the NSA? The court order requires Verizon to provide call metadata records such as the originating and dialed number, call time and duration, location data, calling card numbers, International Mobile Station Equipment Identity numbers and other unique device identifiers. It excludes subscriber name and address information and the actual content of phone conversations.

If the NSA is not collecting subscriber names and actual content of phone calls, why is everybody so concerned? Collecting records on every call made by Verizon customers, regardless of what data is collected, is seen as dragnet surveillance by privacy groups. Privacy advocates also worry that the metadata collected by the NSA is actually more invasive because it will allow the agency to build a detailed profile of every Verizon customer if they choose to. The data can be easily combined with other data sets to allow all sorts of data mining on pretty much anyone that's used Verizon in the past few months.

Is Verizon the only service provider required to provide such data to the NSA? That's highly unlikely. The court order published by The Guardian itself is specific to Verizon. But it's a sure bet that every single major telecom has received a similar order at some time.

How long has this been going on? Similar orders have been issued for at least seven years, according to lawmakers at the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Why is the NSA collecting the data? The government says the data it is collecting helps counterterrorism agents keep track of the communications of known or suspected terrorists. In statements after The Guardian story broke, various lawmakers and the White House have vigorously defended the data collection effort as vital to protecting the nation against terrorist threats. The government insists that strict privacy controls are in place governing the kind of data that can be accessed and how it can be used. They also maintain that all of the data is being collected is court-authorized and compliant with public statutes.

What is the authority under which NSA is collecting all this information? The court that issued the order is a non-public court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was set up specifically to oversee government data access requests filed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA is a controversial wiretapping law that was first passed in 1978 and amended in 2008. FISA was originally designed to give U.S. intelligence agencies a tool for keeping an eye on individuals in foreign countries who were perceived to pose a threat to the U.S. The amended FISA gives broader authority for U.S. agencies to conduct surveillance -- including electronic wiretapping -- of people inside the U.S and overseas who are believed to pose a security risk to the country. The court order to Verizon was issued under a FISA provision, called Section 215, that lets the government seek "any tangible things" on any person under the context of national security.

Does FISA allow for blanket collection of phone records? The government apparently thinks so, although privacy and civil rights advocates vehemently disagree. Critics of FISA have long maintained that language in the law gives the government too much leeway to interpret it the way they want. Though FISA supporters have insisted that the law will only be used in targeted fashion, rights advocates have long warned that FISA will end up being used to justify widespread data collection of the sort highlighted by the Guardian story.

covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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