(Source: Patriot Post)
Blanket order allows NSA to collect data on any or all of Verizon's 121 million U.S. subscribers

Already under fire on a host of scandals -- including drone death strikes on Americans, unprecedented campaigns spying on reporters, and the targeting of political rivals by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) -- the gap between rhetoric and reality continues to widen for the Obama administration, as an alleged policy document detailing active efforts to spy on millions of Americans has leaked.

I. Obama Administration Feigns Transparency

Consider the Obama administration's current policy "Government Should be Transparent", which states:

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.  Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

Now consider the fact that the Obama administration had said nothing about a massive program that has allegedly collected the phone records of millions of Americans, most of which had never engaged in the planning of terrorism or criminal activity.  The order includes calls "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."

Obama administration
The Obama administration has done its best to project a bold image of "transparency".
[Image Modifications: Jason Mick/DailyTech]

The Guardian obtained the order, which was approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).  Past court leaked FISA orders revealed plans to spy on a finite group of individuals or records regarding a specific spying/terrorism suspect.  But this order was unusual allowing "unlimited" spying.

Requested by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the order demands America's largest carrier -- Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc.'s (LON:VOD) Verizon Wireless -- hand over "session identifying information", such as "originating and terminating number", the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and "comprehensive communication routing information".  The records were ordered to be handed the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), an agency officially tasked not with spying on Americans, but on spying on foreign communications.

Basically, these records reveal on a "daily basis" who millions of customers are calling, at what time, and from where they're placing the calls.

II. Spying Campaign Scooped Information on Millions of Law-Abiders

Verizon Wireless currently has 121 million customers in the U.S., according to its most recent earnings report -- which include 98.9m wireless customers, 11.7m residential phone lines, and around 10m commercial lines.  The published court order is seen below:

p. 1
p. 2
p. 3
The secret program by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) began in the Presidency of George W. Bush.  Empowered by the Oct. 2001 USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, the Bush administration repurposed the NSA to its new role of spying on Americans.  Specifically the "business records" (50 U.S.C. § 1861) section of the PATRIOT Act gave the feds the ammo to seize these records from the private sector.

Details of the program first leaked to The New York Times back in 2005.  At the time administration officials speaking confidentially to NYT claimed the program was relatively small -- monitoring the phone calls of around 500 individuals at a time.

Bush and Obama
President Obama and his predecessor President Bush agree on many things, including that the federal government should be granted unregulated spying on its citizens.
[Image Source:]

In 2006, USA Today reported that the program had expanded its data collection, albeit in a less detailed manner.  The new program initiative reportedly collected millions of records of citizens, most of whom were law-abiding.  However, it did not collect details of phone conversations for most calls.

It was undetermined -- until now -- whether the Obama administration had continued such programs of massive surveillance.

III. Big Brother is Watching

Now the world has received strong evidence that Obama is secretly spying on millions of Americans just like his predecessor.

Previously, critics of the Obama administration's spying on both sides of the aisle in Congress, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) had alluded to such programs, but were unable to discuss them under the threat of imprisonment under government secrecy laws.  In a 2012 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sens. Wyden and Udall complain, "We believe that most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted [the PATRIOT Act]."

The report follows the commentary of a former FBI agent who claimed that the government had the ability to access any phone conversation over the past several years, thanks to sophisticated interception technology driven by exabyte storage and advanced dictation software for long-term storage.  Past whistleblower reports from AT&T, Inc. (T) employees have suggested that the nation's second largest wireless carrier may be on the hook for similar surveillance demands.

General Keith Alexander
NSA chief General Keith Alexander has masterminded the massive spying effort.
[Image Source: DefenseTech]

Cumulatively, AT&T and Verizon serve about two-thirds of U.S. phone customers.  The Verizon order alone authorizes the administration to spy on over a third of Americans.

The current court order prohibits Verizon to disclose the request for customer records.  In fact, it prevents Verizon from even mentioning the court order itself.  In exchange for the Orwellian gag provisions, Verizon gets immunity from lawsuits.  The secret order was passed April 15 (2013) and will run through July 19.

IV. Administration: Give up Your Liberties to Protect Yourselves

The administration and its agencies involved in this latest scandal refused to publicly comment on the FISA order.

President Obama
President Obama is yet again angered by critics of his spying. [Image Source: AP]
But in comments to various news agencies unnamed administration officials responded defiantly to the allegations that the programs hurt Americans.  Comments an official to Reuters:

[Spying on Americans is] a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.  It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.

In the 1970s, when the NSA was first organized with the official purpose of spying on foreigners, former Sen. Frank Church III (D-Idaho) warned in a speech:

The NSA's capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter.

It appears the late Senator's prediction proved prophetic.

V. Phone Tracking Could Prove Key to Future Hunts of "The Deadliest Game"

A final piece of food for thought: consider that the U.S. is pushing hard to create unmanned fully-autonomous armed drones and has refused to sign robotic warfare treaties that would keep a human soldier "in the loop" for any killing decisions.  At the same time the U.S. is expanding armed drone use over U.S. soils and AG Holder has stated it may be necessary to kill Americans without warrant in some instances.

Predator missile
Phone records could one day be used to feed information for use in drone killings.
[Image Source: Drone Wars UK]

As facial recognition and fully autonomous warfare advances, the issue of phone record grabs may intensify.  As data handling advances we may eventually reach a state where every citizen's phone signal is used to provide government databases with a discrete target location.  And combined with data mining of social networks and other records, autonomous drones may eventually be able to hunt Americans via phone signal and facial appearance (from harvested images), allowing warrantless death-strikes with a mere press of the button.

The technology isn't quite there.  But with programs like these sweeping surveillance efforts and technology in general rapidly advancing, we're not that far off either.

Sources: Guardian UK [1], [2]

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