Meanwhile, the Obama White House defended the program saying the ability to obtain records of every domestic phone call made in the US was simply "a critical tool" that allows the intelligence community to know when terrorists or suspected terrorists are engaging in dangerous activities.
But civil liberty groups say the program is an example of 'Orwellian' overeach, and the ACLU has started an online petition calling for an end to "the massive spying on the American people."
Within hours of launching the campaign the group had already collected nearly four thousands names and looked poised to quickly capture its five thousand signature target.
In part, the petition reads:
Verizon Business Network Services is one of the nation’s largest telecommunications and internet providers for corporations, so this could apply to the calls of millions of Americans.
What we don't know yet is how many other telecommunications companies have been issued similar orders by the government or what the scope of the government's program is.
In 2012, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) wrote, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.”
It's time to get angry. Be part of a strong public outcry against this program by signing the petition immediately and telling your friends so they know what's happening in this country.
Outrage and rebuke are flying after explosive news broke late Wednesday that the National Security Agency, claiming authority under the Patriot Act and using a secret court order, has demanded (and been receiving) millions of phone records from Verizon which include all the company's "telephony metadata" for all its US-based customers over a three month period.
The "metadata" being provided to the NSA does not provide individual names for each record, but is a blanket order that allows the government spy agency access to all call information for any Verizon Business Network Services customer, including the phone dialed from and to, the location from which the call was made, and the duration of the call.
Civil rights groups, privacy advocates, and others expressed shock at the extent of the order signed by the government's secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, a copy of which was obtained by the Guardian newspaper.
Breaking the story, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald said 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."
"It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies." - ACLU
Though the Guardian report contains only one order from the FISA Court covering a set period, most experts agree that the program has likely been going on for years without disclosure.
Articulating the revelations in plain language, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cindy Cohn and Mark Rofuld explain that the "order gave the NSA a record of every Verizon customer's call history -- every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other 'identifying information' for the phone and call—from April 25, 2013 (the date the order was issued) to July 19, 2013. The order does not require content or the name of any subscriber and is issued under 50 USC sec.1861, also known as section 215 of the Patriot Act."
More worrisome, write the EFF staffers is that no indications exist "that this order to Verizon was unique or novel."
"It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company," they continued. "If you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least 7 years, and probably longer."
The reaction was harsh and swift, with the ACLU and others calling for an immediate halt to the program and a large scale investigation.
What follows is a sampling of the responses from those deeply troubled—if not wholly surprised—by the program.
ACLU Calls for End to Program, Disclosure of Program’s Scope, Congressional Investigation:
"From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," said Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director. "It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."
"Since 9/11, the government has increasingly classified and concealed not just facts, but the law itself. Such extreme secrecy is inconsistent with our democratic values of open government and accountability."
The program was put in place under the Patriot Act’s Section 215, a controversial provision that authorizes the government to seek secret court orders for the production of "any tangible thing" relevant to a foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigation. Recipients of Section 215 orders, such as telecommunications companies, are prohibited from disclosing that they gave the government their customers’ records.
"Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate a full investigation," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "This disclosure also highlights the growing gap between the public’s and the government’s understandings of the many sweeping surveillance authorities enacted by Congress. Since 9/11, the government has increasingly classified and concealed not just facts, but the law itself. Such extreme secrecy is inconsistent with our democratic values of open government and accountability."
Center for Constitutional Rights calls it "broadest surveillance order ever issued":
As far as we know this order from the FISA court is the broadest surveillance order to ever have been issued: it requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S. It also contains a gag order prohibiting Verizon from disclosing information about the order to anyone other than their counsel.
"The broadest surveillance order to ever have been issued: it requires no level of suspicion and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the U.S."
The Patriot Act’s incredibly broad surveillance provision purportedly authorizes an order of this sort, though its constitutionality is in question and several senators have complained about it. The Patriot Act provision requires the FBI to notify Congress about the number of such warrants, but this single order covering millions of people is a deceptive end-run around that disclosure requirement.
Electronic Frontier Foundation says NSA should "stop hiding behind legal privileges":
This type of untargeted, wholly domestic surveillance is exactly what EFF, and others have been suing about for years. In 2006, USA Today published a story disclosing that the NSA had compiled a massive database of call records from American telecommunications companies. Our case, Jewel v. NSA, challenging the legality of the NSA’s domestic spying program, has been pending since 2008, but it's predecessor, Hepting v. AT&T filed in 2006, alleged the same surveillance. In 2011, on the 10th Anniversary of the Patriot Act, we filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Justice for records about the government’s use of Section 215 – the legal authority the government was relying on to perform this type of untargeted surveillance. [...]
"It's time to end the NSA's unconstitutional domestic surveillance program."
The American people have confirmed how the government has secretly interpreted Section 215. And we’re angry. It’s time to stop hiding behind legal privileges and to come clean about Section 215 and FISA. It’s time to start the national dialogue about our rights in the digital age. And it’s time to end the NSA’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance program.
Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), a member of the Senate Intelligence committee who has publicly, though "vaguely," warned about such a program responded to the news by telling CNET:
"While I cannot corroborate the details of this particular report, this sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I've said Americans would find shocking. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it's why I will keep fighting for transparency and appropriate checks on the surveillance of Americans."
Guardian columnist James Ball details what "metadata" is and what authorities can learn about you from accessing such data through phone records:
The primary purpose of large-scale databases such as the NSA's call records is generally said to be data-mining: rather than examining individuals, algorithms are used to find patterns of unusual activity that may mark terrorism or criminal conspiracies.
However, collection and storage of this information gives government a power it's previously lacked: easy and retroactive surveillance.
If authorities become interested in an individual at a later stage, and obtain their number, officials can look back through the data and gather their movements, social network, and more – possibly for several years (although the secret court order only allows for three months of data collection).
In essence, you're being watched; the government just doesn't know your name while it's doing it.
Until now, such actions have been kept a tightly guarded and classified secret, speculated upon, suspected, and occasionally disclosed by sources, but never proven by documents.
Now the confirmation is in the open, the American public have the opportunity to decide which definition of private information they prefer: that of the privacy advocates, or that of the NSA and White House.