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Big Brother is Watching You: Daily Communications Metadata of Citizens Collected under Secret Court Orders
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According to a top secret court order disclosed by The Guardian on Wednesday evening, certain federal government agencies, (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”) have been collecting communication logs of all Verizon customers on a daily basis. The relevant court orders are of a highly classified nature and it is possible that such orders exist for all major communications companies, though the order relating to Verizon got disclosed.

It’s not that those in the know have not been uncomfortable with the government’s secret interpretations of the law pertaining to keeping watch on the activities of its citizens. Last year, two Democrats, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado had sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder observing, “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act.”

In their letter last year, the two Democrats also pointed out, “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows … it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.


Even though in 2011, the New York Times had filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit asking for a report of how the government interpreted its surveillance powers under the Patriot Act, the Obama administration refused to comply. Later the lawsuit was dismissed.

The court order disclosed by The Guardian and signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, directs the Verizon Business Network Services to turn over all communication logs:

  • on an ongoing daily basis”  and pertaining to calls
  • “between the United States and abroad”
  • wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls

The order prohibits those who received the order from discussing its very existence.

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The Guardian noted, “The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

The contents of phone calls are not required to be turned over under the order, and information secretly collected from phone companies under similar orders (whose existence may not be discussed and are subject to speculation) would include, and in the case of the Verizon order does include:

  • Phone numbers of both parties
  • Call duration
  • Unique identifiers
  • Time of call

Even though only the order related to Verizon has surfaced, The Guardian notes, “Previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks.

According to media reports the secret bulk collection of domestic telephone records from communication companies started under the Bush administration using the Patriot Act, 50 USC Section 1861, and continued unabated.


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