NSA-Verizon Surveillance: Welcome to the United States of Total Information Awareness

It turns out that the National Security Agency demanded and got Verizon phone records of all US telephone calls, mobile and otherwise, within the US and between the US and abroad, from mid-April of this year. The order, obtained by The Guardian and which I guess the government would say it is illegal for us to even look at, is being reprinted in the US press.

The secret demand, which itself was classified, was made under the so-called USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which desperately needs to be repealed or struck down as unconstitutional.

Note that the NSA did not do wiretapping. It isn’t looking at the content of the calls. Nor is personal information attached, so it is just records of one number calling other numbers. They have been data-mining the millions of records. By now the NSA and CIA have databases of numbers used by suspected al-Qaeda operatives, against which the calls could be matched. If an interesting pattern emerged (30 US Chechens regularly calling a certain number in Daghestan, e.g.), the NSA would have to get a warrant to discover the identities of the callers. But of course they could easily arrange that, having established that a pattern exists that justifies further investigation.

This sort of fishing expedition can sometimes be useful to counter-terrorism, but fishing expeditions into private papers and records are a violation of the US constitution. The government should only be allowed to see private information if there is reasonable cause to think something illegal is going on. Going looking into private records to see if patterns emerge that suggest illegality is the action of a totalitarian government, not a democratic one. The USA PATRIOT Act was a Sovietization of American law and practice and 2001 was year one of the fall of the Republic, when the Fourth Amendment and aspects of the First Amendment were abrogated.

Unfortunately, as Joshua Foust points out, the US Congress has repeatedly shot down attempts to stop these fishing expeditions, most judges seem pusillanimous in the face of national security considerations, and public outrage outside the circle of human and civil rights activists is limited.

The problem is not focused data-mining for counter-terrorism purposes. It is the temptation of FBI, NSA and CIA officials to advance their careers by using the data to set in motion prosecutions they could not pursue if they had had to convince a judge to give them a warrant.

Say a US government official was in the circle of corrupt financiers who were afraid of a rising, upright public prosecutor threatening to investigate them, and say that official could get access to the NSA database and demonstrate that the prosecutor was dealing with a medical pot dispensary (illegal federally but not in some states). The official could leak the information to the press and ruin the young prosecutor’s career. The phone numbers involved might be public information, so no further warrant would have been necessary, just matching the numbers. (There are facilities where inter-agency sharing of databases is facilitated, so we can’t be sure it is only the NSA that has the records).

Annoying Congressmen could be targeted for unofficial investigation and then blackmailed to back off certain investigations or legislation. Access to millions of phone calls is potentially Mafia-like power.

The potential for insider trading is also enormous. It might be possible to data-mine the investment community in one’s spare time. We will be told that there are safeguards against that sort of thing, but we already know that the information has been used in ways Congress did not originally intend, and after the meltdown in 2008 one would have to be terminally naive to think that people who can use privileged information for private gain will not do so. Congress only recently made insider trading for congressmen an issue, and although it passed a reform it has subsequently attempted to make it difficult to enforce.

I believe I may have been targeted for inappropriate surveillance on political grounds, myself.

I just hope I live long enough to see the USA PATRIOT Act, the most un-American and anti-patriotic piece of legislation since the Alien and Sedition Act, repealed or struck down. Until then, I don’t really accept that I am living in the United States of America. We are living, folks, in the United States of Total Information Awareness.

33 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole,

    I don’t think this following statement has been confirmed:

    [the NSA] got Verizon phone records of all US telephone calls, mobile and otherwise, within the US and between the US and abroad,

    As I believe the order was limited to Verizon Business Services and Verizon Business Network Services, which, I do not believe has been confirmed to include all mobile and telephone calls.

    They may procure such records but I don’t believe this order demonstrated as such. Still messed up.

    • I make this same point below.

      This distinction really should matter, especially in a discussion about Total Information Awareness and a narrative about the government snooping on everyone.

      It won’t, but it should.

  2. The trouble here professor is the word “think” Who decides what someone in a government agency thinks about a particular communication. We have a similar set up over here in England which has been resisted or watered down by our parliament. The secret services under the guise of the home office want to record all phone calls and emails for up to a year. Members of parliament rejected the idea (probably because some of them have communications they would rather not have anyone know about), but every time there is some kind of terrorists related incident, the legislation is brought out again and dusted off ready for use. In the end the law will most likely come into force. This is because the British voter, like the American voter, is frankly stupid. We will doubtless vote the same gang of politicians in next time round.

  3. Though I cannot be sure, I suspect that the information disclosed to the NSA could be used to locate individual cell phone users and determine ther identity without a warrant, as happened with Rigmaiden.

    Additionally, it is possible that similar orders exist with Sprint and other carriers; there’s nothing here to suggest that Verizon is unique.

  4. This troubling governmental grab for universal surveillance leaves me with the question: what do I do? In many authorities countries the police are not trusted. You never call the police because you do not want to end up in their files. Is this where America is heading? In an environment of pervasive surveillance do we, the public, become passively uncooperative? Is “the government” no longer “our government”?

    • For many Americans (let’s start with those whose ancestry doesn’t trace back to northern Europe) “the government” has never been “our government.” There’s no doubt that the group for whom this is true has been expanding rapidly over the last decade or so.

  5. Actually, this news story reminds me a great deal of growing up in the Sixties and early Seventies, when FBI and CIA were spying on activists in the anti-war and civil rights movements during the administrations of LBJ and then Tricky Dick.
    The Bush #43 and now the Obama administration have merely updated this violation of our right to privacy with the same kind of surveillance. But we now have mobile cell phones and the Internet of the global village.
    And I think if you take s broader objective perspective and look at the historical context, it makes a great deal of sense to me why the federal government is reacting this way.
    What do these two eras have in common? Both had wars that had gone bad, and the federal government in its frustration to control the prosecution of these wars was engaged in an absurd exercise in futility.
    It’s what the late historian Chalmers Johnson first called in one of his books “political blowback,” that CIA term for a covert operation conducted overseas that has far-reaching domestic and unforeseen implications and results in America.
    But this always happens when America engages in one its manic fits of empire building in wars of choice rather than necessity.
    As the French love to say, “Ca plus change la plus la meme chose.”
    But when have our fearless leaders ever listened to the friendly advice of the French?
    We certainly didn’t during the Vietnam War nor have we in the Iraq War. Our fearless leaders are once again suffering from the the feverish delusion of American exceptionalism, and we never listen to any good advice when we are on a mission from God.

    • Prof Cole’s remarks, and those of the respondents so far, are far, far too tepid.

      You might try summaries which are available, but here is the final report from the Senate in mid-70’s, documenting the systematic abuse of surveillance powers:

      link to archive.org

      I would like an informed professor or whomever to educate me on those spans of time when a given government which had an ability to abuse its powers did not do so. If would be a nuanced argument if done fairly, like most things. But what we’ve got here should should outright chills through everyone.

      The technology developed to harvest what has been described here could be scaled up to cover ABSOLUTELY everybody, limited only by server space. Has anyone heard the technical discussions of what Bluffdale, Utah, will be capable of? And there are distributed processing that wouldn’t draw such attention and would be easier to institute and hid, necessitating Bluffdale for higher security stuff.

      The technical sophistication to write the code to link and collate names with these “anonymous” files would be trivial, thereby enabling an ad hoc file to be generated on every thing you have ever done related to that number as well as each and every of your associations (correct me if I’m wrong, more informed readers). Systems are already in-use that automate social network analysis, and I’m sure the NSA’s is far better (eg, notice what LinkedIn/Facebook do). It would be ONE simple piece of code….and al ot of (becoming) available server space…..to then have recordings of your conversations/emails digitally recorded for your dossier.

      Off-the-shelve systems are now available to scan any such dossiers, on an automated or ad hoc basis, to flag and collate portions relevant to those in-power. Ah, the Ring of Power…and who will be able to resist using it for long?

      What does anyone think would be going on in Turkey today if THEY had such a system? what would happen if the US had a replay of the sixties?

      Those Turks would never have made it to the streets, and neither will anyone in the US with an opposing views who wants to organize anything not deemed appropriate by the authorities. Your voice will be heard at the sufferance of the System, and the forbearance that can be expected for anything of any real significance will be nil.

      It will, really and truly be all over. It cannot be over-stated what thin ice we are on with this technology, especially given those bent on using it. It’s a matter of time, and time is running short.

  6. Steven Aftergood has posted this comment on his fas.org site:

    “Several features of the operation are problematic, to say the least. The FISC order is sweeping in scope, encompassing “all” call metadata (telephone numbers of callers and recipients, time, duration and more, though not the substantive contents of any conversation). It is unfocused on any designated target of investigation. It is prospective, requiring reporting of future telephone calls that have not yet taken place. And as such, it would seem to exceed any reasonable presumption of what the consent of the governed would allow.”

    link to blogs.fas.org

    If this is really an “unfocused” data collection then it is truly pernicious. But I’m not so sure that the lack of stated target in the order itself means that it is. I don’t believe the target needs to be stated — but that the law just presumes that there must be one.

    This is what the administration must be pressed on. If they can make a case that it was geared to something like the alleged Iran hacking of power grid and pipeline control systems they might have an arguable case for it as those do have potentially massive national security implications. Just about anything else would make the order unreasonably overbroad.

  7. When you consider the finacial and moral support afforded the Nazis by our ruling elite – many of who’s descendants remain in the public eye (ie George Bush, Hillary Rodham) it would be safe to say that Hitler won.

    War is Peace.

    • That’s ahistorical thinking to say the least. If there is no difference between the US and Nazi Germany, you don’t know what fascism is.

      • RBTL you imply there is only one kind of fascism and on that the experts don’t agree. There’s this type and that type and the types take on the labels of the nations in which they reached their peak. Mussolini fascism–collusion of government and corporations– isn’t far from what the US has. And American public sentiment about national security and expanding government powers to ensure security could be likened to Nazi Germany midstream in fascism’s rise.

        But then was then and isn’t now. Today’s technologies have created a far more dangerous potential a for sudden departure into overt fascism than the long road Hitler walked. So has the phenomenal growth of secret US organizations.

        It might be useful to rank the importance of the American people compared to the organizations that hold secret and technological power. The US military has a lot of secrets it keeps from the public, some worthy of protection, a lot of others just to protect itself from public outcry shoudl the public really learn all that the military does. Would the US military sacrifice itself for the American people? Or vice versa? It’s not a trite question. A prevalent in-house suggestion of moral superiority, borne out by polls of military people, does not offer solace of a certain answer. Congress and corporations too have, in Cheney’s words, “other priorities”. Other than human, in other words.

        An interesting phrase came up the other day in reference to current security overreach, something like “traditional use”. If we live with this level of invasive “security”, it becomes traditional. We’ll continue the present level of invasiveness simply because that’s the way they’ve been done, and we’ve gotten used to them. If one dates that change of thought to September 11, one sees that America now has a generation of kids who have known only the kind of overt security measures and intrusions that would have been excoriated as unAmerican decades ago, if they had been from another country. America already acts in many ways like the Soviets forty years ago, which at the time the American press ridiculed. We liked to ridiculed the Italians too, for keeping in place a non-functional government, which is what America has at present. Professor Cole is correct.

  8. John Poindexter ?
    Paging Admiral John Poindexter.
    Please come to a white courtesy telephone.

  9. I suspect that the administration is, or will be, arguing that because the data being collected is “metadata” and not actual content, they are not subject to some of the fairly specific provisions and limitations of the current law I cited above.

    Apparently that may be the “secret interpretation” that Glen Greenwald and others are referring to.

    I can’t imagine how this is going to be constitutionally reviewed — and that is the real rub.

  10. This write-up doesn’t have its facts straight.

    They did not get “all US telephone calls, mobile and otherwise, within the US and between the US and abroad, from mid-April of this year.”

    They got all of the calls handled by a unit of Verizon called Verizon Business Services, which does not handle any residential lines, or ordinary cell phone contracts.

    There are real issues raised by this story. We don’t need to make up silly stories about Big Brother snooping on everyone.

    • To me, at least, this is not just a “story.” It’s just one more index of what’s in the works and what’s in store for us People of the iFreedom’n'Liberty ™.

      Yes, we should all just rest calm in the assurance that all the hoo-rah is just “silly stories.” And the Government, or that part of it that attracts the J. Edgars and Wild Bills and Colbys and Caseys into “governmetn service” which has damn little to do with “service” and a lot more to do with the bureaucratic metastasis of our Domestic Stasi.

      No reason even going to the bother of linking to the stuff that’s been coming out since 6/06 at 12:04 pm, and even before then… Through a PRISM, darkly, with forces arrayed in ECHELON formation.

      “Comfort ye, my people…”

      • JT,

        That the facts of the story don’t matter to you in the formation of your opinion is not something most people would brag about.

        • Must be nice to be able to compartmentalize so easily and completely. Let us not note patterns, and presume sole possessoon of that higher higher consciousness… one way to dominate.

  11. Some interesting federal cases arising out of Detroit:

    United States District Judge Anna Diggs-Taylor in Detroit initially held the ECHELON program of the NSA was unconstitutional as it violated the Fourth Amendment. She was however reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Diggs-Taylor had been a civil rights activist who marched with MLK in the Selma-to-Montgomery demonstration and who later saw her then-husband, Charles Diggs, sitting in U.S. Congress in the 1970s convicted of taking kickbacks after an FBI investigation.

    Abdeen Jabara, the former defense counsel to Sirhan Sirhan who later became executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had FBI, NSA, and CIA surveillance imposed on him since 1967 and, via the ACLU, fought a long court battle in the United States District Court in Detroit and U.S. Court of Appeals over this surveillance, which was eventually settled. His case established landmark judicial opinions on the government’s ability to initiate such surveillance and a citizen’s right to access of such information under the Freedom of Information Act.

    One major question is using surveillance for purposes for which it was intended. Recall the Karim Koubriti terror cell case in Detroit that wound up in the convictions being vacated for prosecutorial misconduct. At least one of the defendants was later convicted of insurance fraud after his personal life came under extreme scrutiny. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Convertino and a State Department investigator were later tried and acquitted of obstruction of justice in the terror prosecution.

    In the Hutaree terror case, there was the criminal defense attorney who got his client out on bail over vigorous U.S. Atotrney objctions and was sued three days later for non-payment of a long dormant student loan obligation.

    N.C. Deday LaRene, one of Detroit’s most prominent criminal defense counsel, was charged with tax evasion several years after winning acquittal in the sedition indictment in Detroit of white supremacist leader Robert Miles.

    Geoffrey Fieger, longtime civil rights attorney and former Democratic nominee for governor, was indicted and acquitted of campaign finance violations in federal court in Detroit. The judge presidng over his trial stated that he rarely seen such a massive FBI investigation in his career on the bench.

    Metro Detroit’s most prominent Palestinian-American attorney, Tim Attalla, was charged with obstruction of justice and drug possession in federal court. The alleged obstruction was advising an arrestee not to answwer a detective’s interrogation. The drug charge stemmed from an informant allegedly seeing Attalla with a Viagra tablet. Attalla was acquitted after a bench trial. Attalla had been earlier cited by an Israeli newspaper as a prominent pro-Arab political figure in Michigan.

    Every one of these cases involved allegations of politically-motivated or otherwise opppresive government conduct targeting individuals who had been vocal opponents or of government action or policy or engaged in the legal representation of such persons.

  12. For this data collection strategy to work at all, records of every single communication must be collected. Duplicates of the Verizon order must have been issued to every telecommunications company, whether mobile, fixed, or net based.

    I think the first question the reporters should ask is who else gets the the same directives as Verizon? Since the cat is out of the bag, everyone in this country has a right to know if their carrier is doing the same thing.

    Another interesting line of inquiry would be the level of integration this database has to other national data bases such as name-to-phone number and name-to-location. Could an FBI agent log in, type two or more names, and get a listing of all phone call between the parties, and the associated metadata? Probably had at least that capability from the start.

    In the movies the bad guys and girls use those anonymous, throw away cellphones. I wonder if this practice is about to migrate us innocent surveillees. And I wonder how far along the administration is on killing the anonymous cellphone.

    • You’re on the right track in your thinking….that one order for Verizon was just the one released, and since it was rather a fishing net we can expect copies went to everybody else. I suspect this one came out in the Guardian due to the work/commitment of Glenn Greenwald and others there, hoping they may be outside of the reach of this SYSTEM. But those running things will be after whomever leaked this document with this very SYSTEM as surely as they pressed down on James Risen and Fox, as came out last week. Just connect a few dots; observe the trends and consistency of behavior exhibited.

      Integration??? Bet on it! That’s the point. It’ll take work and planning, but 10s of thousands of smart guys are on it! The kinks will take time and a series of national security letters to iron-out, but it all appears a rather straightforward task technically, given a modicum of vision/commitment. Otherwise, as you point out, its kinda pointless: for a system like this to hum along as it should it must be designed for integration…following the vision given these people by their fellow adolescent role models, Jack Bauer and his “crew” at the Center on “24.”

      How difficult would it be, administratively, for the powers that be to mandateMicrosoft and Apple design discreet little back-doors in their OS, only for “real emergencies” of course? What are the odds you’ll be told about it without some whistleblower, who then stands to be targeted?

      Trackfone throw-aways. Yeah, that could work to some degree, but the attention to discipline you’d need from being detected and tracked through associations and a hundred other ways would be tough to pull-off.

      You’d have to go off the grid, and thats where this leads. Following such process you will become of no consequence and hence no longer of any potential interest, because “potential” is what drives this program. So, on the one hand you have the off-the-grid role model of Ted Kacynski, and on the other hand……nothingness.

  13. we may not know what fascism is now, i do believe we are on our way to find out. lol technology the Nazis could only dream of will help us, for sure.

  14. The paranoid have no sense of proportion. 9-11 made the USA (as a country) highly paranoid, so we cannot weigh civil-liberties against the odds of some action stopping a terrorist incident. This gets translated into our dysfunctional political system. The dangers for a politician of not taking the next-security step are that some enemy will manage to tar him with blame for some attack far outweigh the cost of pissing off a few civil libertarians.

    This is not a result of a few bad apples in government, but rather is a symptom of a sickness within ourselves.

  15. um, Dr. Cole, DNI Jim Clapper has refudiated your horrible report.
    He says it isn’t true.
    Who ya gonna believe, the nation’s top Intel official, or yer lyin’ eyes ?

    Besides, if he really IS spying on ALL of us, he’s only doing it for our own good.

  16. Professor Cole, wonderful article, though I wish you had quoted Joshua Foust’s opinion…The Exiled did a wonderful piece on him.

  17. I and others believe there is yet another big fat shoe to drop, that the NSA has been recording and saving all our phone calls in their Utah data warehouses, so that if and when the FBI might want to listen to them later (with a FISA warrant) they can do so.

    Obama didn’t say anything that would contradict this theory. He said “Don’t worry, no one is listening to your phone calls.” But nobody needs to listen. It’s all done automatically by computer.

    And that’s the key to their legal justification. The government believes your 4th amendment rights haven’t been violated unless and until a human being actually listens to your conversations – which would be done later with a warrant (as Obama said today). Until then, no warrant is necessary for the NSA to record everything you say on the phone.

    That is huge: The idea that FBI can “wiretap” your PAST conversations, even from years back, whenever they feel like it, provided they secure a warrant from the FISA court which is granted in 99.99% of cases.

    Couple this with broad, direct, and continuing access to the metadata, allowing them to go on data mining witch hunts to precisely identify the conversations and people they want to listen to…and “Orwellian” is an understatement.

  18. There is away to make lemonade out of this (humor me). Every morning when I check my e-mail I know for sure that some are originated with criminal intent, even the ones from young Russian beauties that find me irresistible. Sometimes I get the same message several times a day. I imagine that almost everyone with an e-mail account experiences this.

    On to the lemonade. Imagine if a small piece of NSA’s digitpower was dedicated to finding these crooks and scammers, then maybe block their traffic, or add an obvious tag indicating criminal intent. I think this would make us “safer” than trying to find a hard core terrorist that is too naive to realize that his phone and net gadgets are tapped.

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