The NSA has been collecting detailed call records from America’s three largest telecommunications providers since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials with direct knowledge of the arrangement told Leslie Cauley of USA Today.
Until last week, in part because of official denials, most people had no idea that the U.S. government was collecting any domestic phone records.
Then a startling report appeared demonstrating that, in April, the National Security Agency had demanded that Verizon turn over records of all calls made on its network on a daily basis.
This news was followed by reports that the NSA had made the same request of other major telecom providers.
And now, according to USA Today’s sources, it appears that this wholesale collection of domestic U.S. telecom records is not a new initiative, but instead has been going on for more than a decade. AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon have all been handing over massive, detailed, domestic call records for more than a decade, USA Today says.
The NSA’s goal with this program is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, an unnamed official told USA Today.
The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists for “social network analysis,” one official said, which is used to study how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied together.
USA Today’s Cauley notes that usefulness of the NSA’s domestic phone-call database as a counterterrorism tool is questionable and may be illegal.
Is this legal?
Historically, a court order has been required by phone companies before they would consider turning over a customer’s calling data.
Under section 222 of the Communications Act, first passed in 1934, telephone companies are prohibited from giving out information regarding whom a customer calls, how often, and what routes those calls take to reach their final destination.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the government after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked that the secret court order compels Verizon to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems.
Officials subsequently argued that Section 215 of the Patriot Act justifies the collection of “metadata” about every phone call made or received by U.S. residents.
The ACLU suit counters that this type of dragnet surveillance “is not authorised by Section 215 and violates the First and Fourth Amendments,” noting that such information “gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations.”
Adding to the ACLU’s concerns are indications that the NSA database of communications may have been used for other purposes besides counterterrorism.
NSA Whistleblower William Binney — one of the best mathematicians and code breakers in NSA history — contends that the NSA began using the program he built (i.e. ThinThread) to identify, in real time, networks of associations between people.
The aim, Binney says, is to use communications data — including metadata from phone calls — to build profiles of nearly all Americans so that the government is “be able to monitor what people are doing” and who they are doing it.
Beyond phone calls?
The three carriers cooperating with the NSA provide services including wireless and high-speed broadband Internet, and whistleblowers have asserted that the NSA has access to Internet traffic as well.
In 2010 Dana Priest and William Arkin of The Washington Post reported that “collection systems at the [NSA] intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of communications” every day.
Between 2002 and 2004 AT&T engineer Mark Klein discovered a wiretapped room where he said the NSA “vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T,” emphasising that “much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic.”
The NSA, the world’s largest spy agency, is is considered expert in the practice of “data mining” i.e. sifting through reams of information in search of patterns.
CIA Chief Technology Officer Ira “Gus” Hunt indirectly corroborated these whistleblower claims in March when he told a tech conference: “Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have … we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” Hunt said. “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information.”
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