Has the Government Been Snooping Through Verizon?

A shocking report from The Guardian about a top secret court order from the Obama administration to obtain the records of millions of U.S. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) customers, has the potential to re-spark controversy in the US over the breadth of the government’s domestic spying powers.

The report elucidates that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was granted the access back in April to require Verizon to hand over its customers’ telephone records to the National Security Agency, to help deter violence and terrorist threats. The order, granted April 25, is not only limited to telephone numbers, but also to location and duration of calls, as well as unique identifiers. It was signed 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombing, but the initial secret court order was obtained through a George W. Bush administration policy that began with the Terrorist Surveillance Program in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The order incited controversy then, and it is likely to do the same now.

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This is the first evidence that shows the NSA is still implementing parts of the “data-mining program” begun by the Bush administration in 2011. There was no indication that the Obama administration was adopting a similar program, but now, this report illustrates that the large-scale collection of call records by the NSA has continued under President Obama.

The order gives the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.  A point of contention lies in the power it grants to the NSA to collect telephone records “indiscriminately and in bulk — regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.” While orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court usually grant the FBI the power to target a specific individual or group of individuals who are suspected of being agents of terrorism, this order gives the NSA much more unlimited access, inciting anger from the masses who campaign for civil liberties.

These privacy-rights advocates view the data collection as an intrusion on millions of innocent Americans. Bloomberg reports on this concern, quoting Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, saying, “It is beyond Orwellian…the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

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It also illuminates why certain US senators such as Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have been warning the public for years about the U.S. government’s broad “secret legal interpretations” and was working to amend legislation last year that would have required the order to include certain provisions to help protect U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights.

The order, available on The Guardian’s website, explains a lot, but it doesn’t answer everyone’s lingering questions. It is still unknown whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with the order, and it is unclear whether this three-month order was a one time thing, or just the latest in a series of similar orders. An administration official Thursday defend the information collection calling it, “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist attacks,” as reported by Bloomberg.

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