Photo of NSA HQ (Wikipedia)

What the Government Knows About Your Phone Calls

A remarkable story by Glenn Greenwald in the British daily The Guardian yesterday revealed a secret court order requiring Verizon Communications to give the National Security Agency information about every telephone call, international or domestic, made to or from phone numbers in the U.S. So just what information does this really give the government about our activities?

How broad is the order? Technically, it is quite narrow, covering only Verizon Business Services (a unit of the former MCI Communications) for a period of three months. But it seems reasonable to assume the government has obtained a great many other such orders covering all wireless and wireline carriers and that they are regularly renewed every three months. The order does not suggest that the request was pursuant to any particular investigation. So the safest assumption seems to be that the government monitors every call, and has been doing so for years.

Just what does the NSA get? Everything except the actual contents of the calls (which would require a much more strictly controlled wiretap order.) The order requests “telephony metadata” which it defines as “comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call.”

How did this come to light? It has been suspected for a long time that the government was collecting this information, but this is the first definitive proof. Someone clearly got a copy of the court order to Greenwald, a U.S.citizen living in Brazil who has long been a vocal critical of government surveillance efforts. The leaker acted at considerable peril to him or herself. The order says “no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order.” At a minimum, that means someone risked contempt of court. But the order is also marked “TOP SECRET/SI/NOFORN,” which brings into play much stricter laws governing disclosure of classified information.

Is this legal? It would seem so. The basic authority for this sort of surveillance is Section 210 of the Patriot Act. The Justice Dept.’s interpretation of sweeping powers during both the Bush and Obama Administrations has been controversial, but the government has succeeded in avoiding limits. Partly, this is due to a Catch 22 in which the government has blocked lawsuits from proceeding by claiming they would endanger “state secrets.” The key fact is that the turning over of records was ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as required by the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (the word “foreign”in those names no longer seems to have much meaning.) If a court, even a secret one, says it’s OK, it’s OK until a higher court says otherwise.

Might the government be monitoring the contents of all phone calls? Not legally and maybe not feasibly. The monitoring of calls within the U.S. requires a warrant that can only be issued on probable cause, and even then may only be recorded if the subject of the call is relevant to an investigation  Rules governing international calls are murkier and more complex and there is a good chance they are monitored. Legal requirements aside, it’s not clear that even the NSA has the computer capacity to monitor the contents of every call, and amount of data many orders of magnitude greater than the text metadata. But the truth is that we do not know the scope of the NSA’s capabilities.


Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

4 thoughts on “What the Government Knows About Your Phone Calls”

  1. I always thought 9/11/01 would probably result in an infringement on our freedom. All kinds of questionable actions can be justified because they’re necessary to protect us from terrorism, and there is *some* truth in that, but only some, and it’s not easy to determine what’s really needed and what isn’t. The objection “I can’t talk about that – it’s classified” is especially hard to deal with.

    Threats from outside tend to have this effect on a country.

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