The government knows who you’re calling.
Every day. Every call.
Here’s what you need to know about the secret program and how it works:
Q: What happened and why is it a big deal?
A: The Guardian newspaper published a highly classified April U.S. court order that allows the government access to all of Verizon’s phone records on a daily basis, for both domestic and international calls. That doesn’t mean the government is listening in, and the National Security Agency did not receive the names and addresses of customers. But it did receive all phone numbers with outgoing or incoming calls, as well as the unique electronic numbers that identify cellphones. That means the government knows which phones are being used even if customers change their numbers.
This is the first tangible evidence of the scope of a domestic surveillance program that has existed for years but has been discussed only in generalities. It proves that in the name of national security, the government sweeps up the call records of Americans who have no known ties to terrorists or criminals.
Q: Why just Verizon?
A: It’s probably not. A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the NSA program says that records from all U.S. phone companies would be seized and that they would include business and residential numbers. Only the court order involving Verizon has been made public.
In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was secretly collecting the phone-call records of tens of millions of Americans. The newspaper identified phone companies that cooperated in that effort. The newspaper ultimately distanced itself from that report after some phone companies denied being part of such a government program.
The court document published by The Guardian, however, offers credence to the original USA Today story, which declared: “The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans, most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime.”
Q: Why don’t others in Congress seem that upset?
A: Many members of Congress have known this was going on for years.
“Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that’s brand new,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday. “It’s been going on for … seven years.”
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and vice chairman Saxby Chambliss issued a similar statement:
“The executive branch’s use of this authority has been briefed extensively to the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and detailed information has been made available to all members of Congress.”
Q: Why hasn’t anyone sued over this? Can I?
A: People have sued. But challenging the legality of secret wiretaps is difficult because in order to sue, you have to know you’ve been wiretapped. In 2006, for instance, a federal judge in Detroit declared the NSA warrantless wiretapping program unconstitutional. But the ruling was overturned when an appeals court said the plaintiffs — civil rights groups, lawyers and scholars — didn’t have the authority to sue because they couldn’t prove they were wiretapped.
Court challenges have also run up against the government’s ability to torpedo lawsuits that could jeopardize state secrets.
The recent release of the classified court document is sure to trigger a new lawsuit in the name of Verizon customers whose records were seized. But now that the surveillance program is under the supervision of the FISA court and a warrant has been issued, a court challenge is more difficult.
Suing Verizon would also be difficult. A lawsuit against AT&T failed because Congress granted telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for cooperating with warrantless surveillance. In this instance, Verizon was under a court order to provide the records to the government, making a lawsuit against the company challenging.
Q: Can the government read my emails?
A: Not under this court order, but it’s not clear whether the NSA is monitoring email content as part of this program.
In 2006, former AT&T technician Mark Klein described in federal court papers how a “splitter” device in San Francisco siphoned millions of Americans’ internet traffic to the NSA. That probably included data sent to or from AT&T internet subscribers, such as emails and websites.
Most email messages are sent through the internet without encryption, and anyone with the right tools can view them. Every email contains details about whom it’s from and where it’s supposed to go. Unlike postal letters, those details can include information that can be linked to a subscriber’s billing account, even if he or she wants to remain anonymous.
In May 2012, Wyden and Udall asked the NSA how many people in the U.S. had their communications “collected or reviewed.” The intelligence community’s inspector general, I. Charles McCullough III, told the senators that providing such an estimate “would likely impede the NSA’s mission” and “violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”