Can You Hear Me Now: NSA is Tracking Your Cell Calls UPDATED

| Analysis

If you think your cell phone activity is private, think again. The NSA reportedly obtained a court order requiring Verizon to hand over all kinds of data on subscriber activity -- and not just for some customers, but for all customers. The order was issued secretly, and if the NSA targeted Verizon, there's a good chance AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile received similar court orders, too.

The NSA is tracking your cell callsThe NSA is tracking your cell calls

The secret court order for Verizon found its way to The Guardian and required the carrier to hand over a surprising amount of customer information including their phone numbers, the time and duration of their calls, routing data, and more for the calls they made after April 25 and up through July 19. The order stops short of requiring actual recordings of conversations, which isn't much of a consolation considering how much data is being handed over.

To be clear: The NSA order isn't targeting specific customers that are suspected of engaging in illegal activity; it's a sweeping order collecting data on all cell phone users.

The order came through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is a special U.S. court that handles the approval process for Federal surveillance warrants related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Since the court oversees warrants related to suspected agents working with foreign governments, granting an order requiring cell service providers to hand over detailed activity records for U.S. citizens, most of whom presumably aren't suspected of any criminal activity, is especially disturbing.

This isn't the first time the United States has conducted wide spread surveillance of its citizens and their communication activity, although it is the first known instance under President Barak Obama. In 2006, President George W. Bush issued a secret order allowing the NSA to monitor phone, email and online activities following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and like the current order, it didn't limit the surveillance to people suspected of criminal activities.

The Mac Observer contacted Verizon about the current NSA warrant even though the document prohibits the company from discussing the order. So far, the company hasn't responded to TMO's query.

We also asked AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile if they received similar orders and all three responded with similar comments. AT&T replied saying, "We have no comment," while a Sprint spokesperson said, "We are not commenting on this," and T-Mobile replied with, "T-Mobile US is not providing comment."

While none of the carriers that responded to our questions confirmed that they are, in fact, providing subscriber information to the NSA under a court order, they didn't offer a definitive "no." Since they could've replied with a denial if there wasn't an NSA gag order in place, a "no comment" response implies that they're currently in a position where they can't comment at all. In other words, it's highly likely that in addition to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all received NSA orders requiring them to secretly hand over customer activity records.

The NSA is presumably acting in what its administrators see as the best interests of the people, and that if you have nothing to hide there isn't any cause for worry. That said, just because you have nothing to hide doesn't make it right for the government to go through your private activities without cause -- and that cause should include at least a modicum of suspicion that you're involved in some kind of criminal activity.

Whether or not you are suspected of criminal activity, however, is immaterial at this point since the NSA does have its court order and is collecting user data from at least Verizon and very likely from other carriers, too. Keep that in mind the next time you make a call or text a friend from your iPhone.

[This article has been updated with statements from Sprint and T-Mobile]

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]

Comments

Lee Dronick

From what I “gather” this isn’t illegal under current law. If so then we have no one to blame but ourselves because we vote in the Congress who makes the laws and keeps them on the books.

skipaq

Just one more example of this administration’s hypocrisy on privacy rights. They have been quite busy checking everyone out. It seems going after some reporters and conservative groups didn’t satisfy their curiosity. So they just start checking everyone out.

Jamie

It’s more than a little disconcerting, and it almost feels like laziness at the expense of our personal liberties, i.e. rather than having to go through a process of investigation and elimination when there is genuinely probable cause . . . we’ll just keep tabs on everyone, all the time, and we can search our database and run our algorithms and that already elusive animal called justice will have been hunted to the brink. Not good.

ibuck

While the legislative and executive branches of the US federal government are responsible for evading 4th Amendment protections and for eroding the people’s civil liberties, the judicial branch is also culpable. The FISA judge(s) and the US Supreme Court judges (Citizen’s United, Maryland v. King (DNA swabs)) and judges who imprison citizens for not testifying as they would like) may well be worse miscreants than elected officials. These “agenda” judges need to be removed from office for violation of their oath to protect and defend the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. That’s what the impeachment process is for. But Americans haven’t yet developed the political will to do so, or even to vote out the elected officials who betray our liberties and our trust.

iJack

“Keep that in mind the next time you make a call or text a friend from your iPhone.”

Since Verizon are handing over to the NSA only the records of calls, and not recordings of the calls themselves, why would they care if you were calling/texting a friend, no matter what you might have said? The order says;
“Telephony metadata does nor include the substantive content of any communication, as defined by 18 U.S.C.  2510(8), or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”

I am not trying in any way to justify this NSA activity – it disgusts me, in fact – but your article is ill-informed, and a little alarmist. Read the Order, then report.

PS to Skipaq: U.S. Citizens have no “privacy rights.”

skipaq

Thanks, iJack. My complaint was about the hypocrisy of those in charge today. They were up in arms about the previous administration’s snooping. But I would disagree on the matter of “U.S. Citizens have no “privacy rights.” A certain IRS chief just used one of them when she took the “5th” before congress.

iJack

Actually Skipaq, I don’t believe they were. The Obama administration has been very careful from the get-go, to not diss the previous occupants of the White House. Obama supporters however, suffer no constraints.  if I am overlooking something said by this administration that shows an hypocrisy about ‘snooping’, perhaps you’ll show me.

The 5th Amendment has nothing to do with privacy rights. It is the right to not be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

skipaq

The Bush administration went after international communications after 9/11. Obama and many in this administration were critics of that policy. I see what is being done with Verizon (likely all carriers) to be far beyond what they were criticizing. You really should be able to see the privacy aspect of the 5th.

MacFrogger

OK - reality check time.  Like others above, I’m not at all happy that the govt is watching all of us in this manner.  But is this practice really any different than what Facebook, Google, your ISP, etc are doing ALL THE TIME?  Where’s the outcry?

I mean the govt is collecting the metadata on these phone calls (not listening to or scanning the content as was pointed out above), and I will bet that any time a possible “person of interest” comes up the first thing they do is (using these metadata) identify everyone that person has communicated with and try to figure out if any of ‘em are suspicious characters.  Wanna bet that the Feds quickly IDed everyone that the Boston Marathon bombers talked to in the months preceding the bombing and checked them all out? Wanna bet that some of the bombers’ “friends” were identified this way?

Now compare this with Google. They collect metadata from everything you do - everything - AND they scan the CONTENT of your emails, AND they have vehicles running all over the globe with cameras (documenting your home/property while logging your home wireless network), AND…shall I go on??  All of these datasets are mined using sophisticated algorithms in order to create as accurate a profile of you as they can.  All to better serve you ads.  And you in this case really means you - each and every one of us!

If you really care about your privacy, get off Facebook completely, minimize your use of Google, and “mix and match” what you do (yes, make Apple the core) so all your metaeggs are not being mined in the same corporate basket.  There’s a lot more you can do if you want to be very private (e.g. perhaps you have something to hide), but honestly folks, when it comes to tracking you and making profiles of you the private sector is probably far ahead of the govt.

And yet as I asked at the beginning of this post, Where’s the outcry?

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