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NSA's Verizon Phone Surveillance Program: What You Need to Know

The National Security Agency was granted a top secret order forcing Verizon to turn over all of its US customers' phone records over a three-month period according to The Guardian, who published the full court order on Wednesday. Documents reveal that one of Verizon's subsidiaries is obligated to give the NSA all "telephony metadata" between the end of April through the end of July — all in the name of national security.

The Obama administration was in hot water not too long ago over a similar seizure of call information. The Justice Department recently secretly subpoenaed months' worth of the Associated Press's phone records.

Whether or not the collection of private information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats," as The White House claims, is still up for debate. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), told reporters a domestic terror attack was thwarted as a result of the order — but details on the nature of the attack are slim.

How, as a US citizen, Verizon customer, and phone caller, does all of this affect you? Here's what you need to know about who's involved, how this happened, and what exactly is being collected.

Who Is Involved?

  • NSA — The National Security Agency, also known as the Central Security Service, is a federal agency under the US Department of Defense charged with communications intelligence and security, both domestic and foreign. Its activities are typically highly classified, and widespread domestic surveillance by this agency is not unprecedented.
  • FISA Court — The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which presides over matters regarding surveillance of American citizens, permanent residents, or foreign powers. The FISA Court granted the secret order on April 25, giving the FBI and NSA access to Verizon's data.
  • Verizon Business Network Services — This is the subsidiary of Verizon specifically targeted by the court order. It is a Virginia-based company that provides local and long-distance voice, messaging, and Internet access services to residential customers, businesses, communication wholesales, federal, state, and local governments.
  • The White House — The Obama administration defended the practices but did not confirm the specific NSA order. The Rep. Mike Rogers did, however, say the NSA surveillance of phone records was used to thwart a "significant case" of terrorism within the last few years.

Exactly what data is collected from Verizon customers after the break.

How Did This Happen?

  • Patriot Act — The USA Patriot Act of 2001, also known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, went into action on Oct. 26, 2001, under President George W. Bush in response to the September 11 attacks. The act enabled the government to engage in enhanced surveillance procedures and intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to terrorism and other offenses.
  • Business Records Provision — Also known as the library records provision, this section of the Patriot Act (Section 215) outlines the procedure to apply for an order in matters of national security, terrorism, or clandestine intelligence activities, such as the one the NSA was granted. The provision's constitutionality has come into question due to the fact that the agency does not need to disclose the reason for issuing the order, in order to protect the classified natured of the investigation.

What Exactly Is Being Collected?

  • Telephony Metadata — Metadata is essentially information about the transaction of a call. The order requires Verizon to surrender all "metadata" in the set time period, which includes: customer communications between the US and abroad and within just the US, routing information, originating and terminating phone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity number, trunk identifies, telephone calling card numbers, time, and the duration of the call. Metadata does not, however, include the actual contents of the call.

The NSA and Verizon have not commented on the publicized court order, and reports of other telecommunication companies surrendering their data have not surfaced at this time. What we do know is that social media companies like Twitter and Google publish Transparency Reports disclosing user information requests from the government at

Image Source: Getty
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