US government secretly collecting phone records of all 121m Verizon customers

In a blockbuster story breaking last night, Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian disclosed that under a top secret court order, Verizon has been providing the entire phone records of all of its customers to the United States government since this past April.  The order specifies that the information will be provided by Verizon until July 19, 2013.

The Guardian posted a copy of the court order, stamped “TOP SECRET” on its Web site.  The document states that it is to be declassified on April 12, 2038.

Here is what the court specifically ordered:

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that, the Custodian of Records shall produce to the National Security Agency (NSA) upon service of this Order, and continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this Order, unless otherwise ordered by the Court, an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or “telephony metadata” created by Verizon for communications (1) between the United States and aborad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local calls.

The order goes on to explain that the data to be provided includes your phone number, the number you’re calling, any telephone calling card numbers, time and duration of the call, and some other identifying data.  The order does not cover the content of the calls.

eavesdropping spying privacy

Eavesdropping via Shutterstock

Still, as Glenn notes, they can put together a rather interesting overview of your life by looking at who you call, when you call, and the location you’re calling from.  That would mean, for example, that the US government has a list of the sources of every reporter in the United States who uses a Verizon cell phone, and has used that phone to communicate with a source between the dates covered in the court order.

Mind you, this is one court order.  We have no idea whether this is Verizon’s first, and whether other phone companies are involved.

All of this is reminiscent of the stories back in December of 2005, from the NYT, about Bush’s domestic spying conducted in cahoots with the phone companies.  During that scandal, AT&T was the company involved (or at least the one we knew about).  Having said that, at least this time they got a court order.  Last time, under the Bush administration, they didn’t even bother doing that.

Having said that, this is an amazingly broad court order, covering every single Verizon customer under the dates in question.  It makes me wonder what they told the judge to convince him to agree to this.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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53 Responses to “US government secretly collecting phone records of all 121m Verizon customers”

  1. Bill_Perdue says:

    Call in as soon as you escape from Gitmo.

  2. ezpz says:

    They’re all in on it.

  3. Asterix says:

    So, just “tip of the iceberg”? I shudder to think of what’s still underwater.

  4. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obama is not a figurehead. He proposed and defends NDAA. He claims and uses an illegal ‘power’ to murder American citizens. Obama and the Congress are the enemy, as I said in my original post.

    Your attempt to defuse his role as mad dog war criminal and murderer is as wrong as it gets.

  5. Sweetie says:

    Misrepresenting my point clues me in, again, to the fact that you’re deluded by the existence of a figurehead. Like so many, Obama exists as a focal point so that people can pretend he is the policy, rather than the policy being the collective will of the government in general and the people backing it.

    Obama has no power on his own. That is not apologizing for him in any respect. It is not being blinded by the “few bad apples” nonsense that characterizes the vast majority of political thought these days.

  6. karmanot says:

    That is sadly hilarious. Well done.

  7. karmanot says:

    And for Allah’s sake don’t order goat cheese on that pizza.

  8. karmanot says:

    It’s a non argument now. Obozo won big time and is fast forwarding the worst aspects of the Bush police state legacy.

  9. karmanot says:

    Cancel Verizon?

  10. zorbear says:

    But I thought that the second amendment was the only one there wuz?????

  11. ezpz says:

    Holder has help on that now:

    “Feinstein’s Call for Leak Investigation Into Publishing of Top Secret Order for Verizon Call Data”

  12. jomicur says:

    I don’t doubt Romney would have TRIED to be as evil as he could be. But with a Republican in the White House, Democrats in congress, and especially in the Senate, would have fought him every step of the way instead of rolling over and letting him do whatever he wanted, as they’ve done with Barry. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of the Dems, but I think we could count on them to play party politics as much as they’re able.)

  13. Houndentenor says:

    I understand why the government wanted the records, by why did Verizon agree to turn them over without a fight? And why haven’t Verizon customers sued them for a violation of their privacy?

  14. BeccaM says:

    Haven’t read the Constitution lately, have you?

    In particular, I’d recommend the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments in the Bill of Rights.

  15. BeccaM says:

    I actually don’t doubt he would have been worse, but it’s like arguing which is preferable, death by evisceration or by being drawn and quartered.

    Neither is wanted. Or to use my favorite term, we’re told we can have Huge Evil or Lesser Evil, but never Not Evil.

  16. BeccaM says:

    I’m no Constitutional expert, but I’ve seen enough court cases indicating that the courts feel — all the way up to SCOTUS — that anything under the “national security” umbrella trumps virtually all other civil rights concerns.

    Hence secret courts. Secret warrants. Secret rulings. Secret evidence (or none provided at all).

    I have no doubt whatsoever that what we have now, with blatantly unconstitutional stuff happening all the time, we’d be able to power the entire United States of America by the sheer force of all the grave-spinning by those Founders. Franklin famously said in response to the question as to what we’d all been given, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

    We haven’t.

  17. Asterix says:

    You constitutional experts can help me with this one.

    Exactly what section of the US Constitution authorizes secret courts, judges and warrants? I would think that the whole notion would have been an anathema to the founders.

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s delusional apologetics to pretend that Obama is not spearheading efforts to spy on US citizens, jail us without trial and the right to habeas corpus and murder us on a whim.

    Why on earth would anyone want to defend Obama, the worst president in the last century. And why on earth would you begin your rant pretending I focus solely on Obama when I said “He and Congressional Democrats and Republicans are clearing the way to create a police state …”

    Get some clues.

  19. Sweetie says:

    Obama this, Obama that. This is our entire government. Wake up.

  20. ezpz says:

    Meanwhile, some Democratic senators have voiced concerns about the administration’s interpretation of the PATRIOT Act, which they claim contradicts the letter of the law and further expands its scope, based on a legal theory which the White House insists is “a secret” from the public. (See also section 4.) [68][69][70][70b][70c]

    The White House continues to push for the expansion of the use of national security letters. [71][72]

  21. ezpz says:

    “It has been widely reported as being all Verizon but that is not the legal entity that the order is addressed to.”

    Forgive my cynicism, but I think this administration, like the one preceding, doesn’t care much about what’s legal.

    “…And that only makes sense if the Bush era practice of indiscriminate demands for records never ended….”


    Electronic surveillance and data-mining on a massive and expanding scale continue to this day, while Obama has vowed to veto any bill that requires the president to even subject his surveillance activities to more congressional oversight – the lack of which enabled Bush to implement the NSA program secretly. In April 2009, The New York Times reported that the NSA under Obama has exceeded even the modest legal limits it was supposed to follow in its collection of Americans’ emails and phone calls. [85][86]

  22. Naja pallida says:

    You’ve given them the exact cover they wanted. People not caring about their rights being violated, doesn’t make it any better. At what point would you stand up for yourself? When your neighbor is dragged away in the middle of the night? Or would you just give thanks that it wasn’t you, because you’ve done nothing wrong?

  23. MyrddinWilt says:

    The order is addressed the Verizon Business Services (formerly MCI).

    It has been widely reported as being all Verizon but that is not the legal entity that the order is addressed to. The body of the order abbreviates the subject to Verizon but the first page defines the scope. The FBI/NSA may have made a mistake but I think it rather more likely that they sent separate orders to each of the business units holding an independent FCC license.

    The reason this is significant is that it pretty much demolishes the idea that this was targeting the Boston bombers as Josh Marshall tries to make out. If there was any discrimination in the request for records then the business customers would be the ones least likely to have relevant information.

    The only context in which this makes any sense is if the government made a request for access to all telephone records from all companies after the Boston bombing. And that only makes sense if the Bush era practice of indiscriminate demands for records never ended.

    There are valid reasons why the FBI might have such a broad demand but they are pretty unrealistic. Like investigating toll fraud in Verizon. And none of those reasons would involve the NSA.

  24. Naja pallida says:

    Your order of Canadian bacon and Italian sausage as toppings makes your loyalty to the United States suspect.

  25. ezpz says:

    Maybe so, but Bush was definitely included in this show.

  26. ezpz says:

    This has some very serious implications.

    I live in a multi ethnic, multi national neighborhood – Pakistanis, Indians (from India), Hispanic, African American, White, Russian, etc.
    I’m sure that the Pakistanis talk to their friends and family abroad. With this administration’s (re)defining ‘terrorist’ and ‘imminent threat’ to mean that any male between the ages of 18 and 34 in a certain location is an imminent threat, well….I won’t be surprised when a drone flies overhead.

  27. nicho says:

    Because it gives them a chance to hyperventilate and bash Obama. When Bush was similar things, not a peep.

  28. ezpz says:

    Tha’s exactly what Lindsey Graham said, so it must be true.


  29. nicho says:

    You forgot the sarcasm tag — I hope.

  30. nicho says:

    Ordinarily I’d agree, but did you read Romney’s recently released plan for taking over the government in the event he won. It’s really quite scary. It was probably drawn up in cult headquarters in SLC. The Mormons have been salivating over an LDS theocracy since the beginning. This plan would have been the first step.

  31. ezpz says:

    Yes, indeed, they’re part of the problem. A very BIG part.
    Especially when they trot out the defenders of this crap, like Lindsey, et al.
    When the Lindsey Grahams, the John McCains, and other republican critics of this administration actually think this is a good thing, well, we’re really in trouble. Obama has expanded the police state beyond even Cheney’s wildest dreams.

    And nary a peep from the democrats.

  32. jomicur says:

    Can you please explain how the government knowing the time when I called to order pizza, and which toppings I prefer, “keeps us safe from terrorists”? How does depriving American citizens of our rights make it less likely that foreigners will attack us?

    This country is rapidly turning into a mirror of the old Soviet Union, and the best response you can muster is “don’t sweat it”?! You are a perfect example of the mindset that will doom this nation.

  33. DrDignity says:

    Holder will no doubt be searching for the source of these leaks for another show of hegemon’s struggle to control all messages by killing the messengers. Holder doesn’t realise that the jig is up: everybody knows what’s going on & we’ve grown weary of “be afraid, be very afraid!” Please visit Truthdig’s Chris Hedges, or better yet, read Sheldon Wolin’s essays & books on inverted totalitarianism.

  34. jomicur says:

    But…but…but Romney would have been worse! I’m not sure how, but the people who kept telling us that must know. Obamabots, please explain.

  35. Ray says:

    All they give is the numbers time and length of the call. If that helps to keep us safe from terrorist then so be it. If you have nothing to hide then don’t sweat it.

  36. jomicur says:

    I’m convinced that Obama studied the constitution for the same reason W.C. Fields said he read the Bible: looking for loopholes.

  37. nicho says:

    Me. Me. Me. Pick me. Because the corporatist media are in on the scheme. They’re part of the problem.

  38. ezpz says:

    Yup. Right you are.

    The weird thing is that the show I mentioned was aired on, of all places, Fox (FNC)!

  39. Drew2u says:

    Because it involves reporters being journalists and not stenographers.
    (like photojournalism: there’s a difference between a snapshot and a photo)

  40. ezpz says:

    Worth repeating Glen Ford’s “more effective evil” description…

  41. ezpz says:

    I’m wondering why this is not being discussed more.
    I saw a special about that facility, and it really was – for lack of a better word – CHILLING!
    Very creepy.

  42. ezpz says:

    No, it’s not just business services.

    They’re using that part of the law for cover, just like they use “national security” to classify anything that might incriminate or embarrass them.

    Quoting John’s conclusion here:

    …this is an amazingly broad court order, covering every single Verizon customer under the dates in question. It makes me wonder what they told the judge to convince him to agree to this.”

  43. Drew2u says:

    Why else was there a $5 billion data-storage center built in Utah, able to hold yotabyes of data.

    To store a yottabyte on terabyte sized hard drives would require a million city block size data-centers, as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.
    If 64 GB microSDXC cards (the most compact data storage medium available to public as of
    early 2013) were used instead, the total volume would be approximately 2500000 cubic meters, or the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

  44. ezpz says:

    Perfectly said!

  45. MyrddinWilt says:

    The order applies to Verizon BUSINESS services. Not the mobile or residential services. There might be orders relating to those as well. Or there might not. One reason for issuing separate orders would be to mitigate the PR damage if there was a leak.

    The FBI giving the data to the NSA is rather odd since the FBI should have the ability to do any analysis needed to investigate crime.

    Given the circumstances, all I think we can conclude at this stage is that Josh Marshall’s theory about this being connected to the Boston Bombing looks to be wrong.

  46. samizdat says:

    “…at least this time they got a court order. Last time, under the Bush administration, they didn’t even bother doing that”. That’s because (and correct me if I’m wrong), the new FISA rules hadn’t been voted upon and put into place. Guess who voted ‘aye’ for those new FISA protocols? Why, yes, Virginia, it was our murdering drone-killer, then-Senator Obama.

    He’s the lesser of two evils, dontcha know.

  47. nicho says:

    Maybe it’s time we offered an apology to all those people who compared Obama to Stalin.

  48. nicho says:

    Well, some people need to know the law so they can figure out how to break it.

  49. nicho says:

    Oh, we’re there alright. We just don’t want to admit it.

  50. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obama is worse than Truman, Nixon and all other recent presidents when it comes to bashing and gutting the Bill of Rights. NDAA, FISA, Paytriot Act, the assumed right to murder US citizens because they disagree with him.

    He and Congressional Democrats and Republicans are clearing the way to create a police state capable of viciously dealing the the radicalization that will only increase, in fits and starts, as the depression and austerity continue and deepen.

    We’re not there yet by a long shot but the stench of fascism is in the air.

  51. Dave says:

    The privacy side of this is such a non-story. We’ve known publicly since at least 2005 that American intelligence agencies have had live access to all phone and web traffic.

    The real story is that the phone providers clearly have this data, and refuse to implement a plan that allows customers to report unsolicited calls. We could stop all spam calls NOW, if the phone companies were willing to lose the income they gain from them. Obviously, they aren’t, so we’re going to need a law to force the companies into action.

  52. A_nonymoose says:

    If we don’t put a stop to this now, we’ll never stop it. And no, I don’t know how. Constitutional law professor, my ass.

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