Yesterday British newspaper The Guardian reported that the National Security Agency had obtained a secret court order allowing the agency to collect an extraordinary amount of information about telephone calls made by innocent Americans. The dragnet order, issued to Verizon, describes what may be the broadest surveillance program ever conducted by federal authorities. While the order doesn’t give the NSA the content of the conversations, it provides location information, time, date, and duration, and telephone numbers for all customer calls within the US and between US callers and foreign phone numbers.
Comments from Senators defending the program confirm that the request published by The Guardian is just the latest three-month extension of a 7-year program of constant collection of cell phone call and location data.
It’s breathtaking. The authority to obtain these records comes from Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the so-called “business records provision,” which allows the government to request any tangible thing (not just a business record) from any third party custodian. The provision used to be focused on just a few kinds of records from a few kinds of businesses – banks, car rental companies, storage units, and the like – but the PATRIOT Act broadened Section 215 so that it became near-infinite. And the standard to issue the order is that the stuff sought might be “relevant” to an ongoing investigation.
For years, libraries and our civil liberties friends (including Senators who are privy to classified briefings) have been warning about these orders. And when the PATRIOT Act came up for renewal, we have proposed language that would tighten Section 215 ever so slightly, asking for “specific and articulable facts” that connect the request to a suspected crime. Every time we have been told that these changes would endanger a mysterious, ongoing program of widespread collection.
Now we know what that program was. I wish I could say we are surprised, but, well, this is exactly what we and many, many other concerned groups have been warning about for years.