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 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]