The National Security Agency's warrant for metadata on every single Verizon call for three months is jaw-dropping in its scope. Except, well, the NSA's surveillance of our communications is most likely much, much bigger than that. Technology has made it possible for the American government to spy on citizens to an extent East Germany could only dream of. Basically everything we say that can be traced digitally is being collected by the NSA. We're supposed to trust that our government will be much better behaved, but they're not, and the White House almost admits it. That doesn't mean they're admitting everything.
"On its face, the document suggests that the U.S. government regularly collects and stores all domestic telephone records," The Week's Marc Ambinder writes of Glenn Greenwald's scoop last night. "My own understanding is that the NSA routinely collects millions of domestic-to-domestic phone records. It does not do anything with them unless there is a need to search through them for lawful purposes." Previous reporting from many outlets suggests that's true. In 2006, USA Today's Leslie Cauley reported the NSA was secretly collecting call records with data from AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. A source told Cauley, "It's the largest database ever assembled in the world" and that the NSA wanted "to create a database of every call ever made" within U.S. territory. Likewise, in 2011, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer spoke to former NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney, who "believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later." He thinks the NSA wants all emails to be searchable, the same way we search with Google. "The agency reportedly has the capacity to intercept and download, every six hours, electronic communications equivalent to the contents of the Library of Congress," Mayer said. As Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Atlantic Wire last night, "This is confirmation of what we've long feared, that the NSA has been tracking the calling patterns of the entire country." Update: In defending the program, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein seems to indicate that the court order is a regular, quarterly thing. "There is nothing new in this program. The fact of the matter is, that this was a routine three-month approval under seal that was leaked," Feinstein said on Thursday.
And the NSA isn't just collecting the things we say. It's also tracking what we buy and where we go. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman reported that the NSA's domestic data collection "have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people's communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks." That means emails records, bank transfers, phone records, travel records.
As Ambinder explains, there's a difference between collecting the call data, analyzing the data, and eavesdropping on the calls. The government's talking points defend the program by noting the NSA might know the length and location of your phone calls, but at least they weren't listening in. "On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls," the talking points say. The "senior government official" does not directly confirm the court order is real, but says that "Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States."
That sounds so noble. And the NSA would never abuse its awesome surveillance power, right? Wrong. In 2008, NSA workers told ABC News that they routinely eavesdropped on phone sex between troops serving overseas and their loved ones in America. They listened in on both satellite phone calls and calls from the phone banks in Iraq's Green Zone where soldiers call home. Former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk described how a coworker would say, "Hey, check this out… there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out." Faulk explained they would gossip about the best calls during breaks. "It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy.'"
MORE ON THE SURVEILLANCE ERUPTION FROM THE ATLANTIC WIRE:
- SILICON VALLEY SPIES: PRISM Companies Deny Knowledge of NSA Data Collection
- NEW 'PRISM' REVELATIONS: NSA Funneling Internet Data from Silicon Valley to Obama
- THE HIT PIECE: New York Times Lashes Out at Obama, One Brutal Line at a Time
- ZERO DARK VERIZON: Why D.C. Hates Leaks Until It Loves Hunting Them Down
- THE DAMAGE CONTROL: Verizon Wants You to Blame the Government — and It's Working
- ALL THE REACTIONS: Look Who's Defending the NSA in Washington
- ON THE HILL: Eric Holder Got Off Really Easy at His First Post-Verizon Hearing
- IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS: Exactly Who to Blame in Congress for OK'ing Government Spying
- WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Pundits Destroy NSA Over Phone Warrant
- THE MORNING AFTER: Obama Administration Defends Right to Take Phone Records
- WHAT YOU'RE SAYING: The Jaded Social-Media Response to NSA Spying
- THE SCOOP: Verizon Ordered to Give Cellphone Meta Data to Government
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.