In an explosive investigative piece published in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald details a top-secret US court order that gave the NSA the ability to gather call records for every phone call completed on Verizon's network, even calls that originated and terminated in the USA (the NSA is legally prohibited from spying on Americans). This kind of dragnet surveillance has long been rumored; Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall published an open letter to US Attorney General Holden saying that "most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted…the Patriot Act." Here, at last, are the details:
The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls".
The order directs Verizon to "continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order". It specifies that the records to be produced include "session identifying information", such as "originating and terminating number", the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and "comprehensive communication routing information".
The information is classed as "metadata", or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such "metadata" is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cindy Cohn and Mark Rumold point out, this kind of surveillance is at the heart of several of its ongoing cases, and the Obama administration has done everything in its power to stop the American people from finding out how it interprets the Constitution:
This type of untargeted, wholly domestic surveillance is exactly what EFF, and others have been suing about for years. In 2006, USA Today published a story disclosing that the NSA had compiled a massive database of call records from American telecommunications companies. Our case, Jewel v. NSA, challenging the legality of the NSA's domestic spying program, has been pending since 2008, but it's predecessor, Hepting v. AT&T filed in 2006, alleged the same surveillance. In 2011, on the 10th Anniversary of the Patriot Act, we filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Justice for records about the government's use of Section 215 – the legal authority the government was relying on to perform this type of untargeted surveillance.
But at each step of the way, the government has tried to hide the truth from the American public: in Jewel, behind the state secrets privilege; in the FOIA case, by claiming the information is classified top secret.