the Guardian

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With every phone call they make and every Web excursion they take, people are leaving a digital trail of revealing data that can be tracked by profit-seeking companies and terrorist-hunting government officials.

The revelations that the National Security Agency is perusing millions of U.S. customer phone records at Verizon Communications and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.

Verizon is handing over so-called metadata, excerpts from millions of U.S. customer records, to the NSA under an order issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian. The report was confirmed Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Former NSA employee William Binney told The Associated Press that he estimates the agency collects records on 3 billion phone calls each day.

The NSA and FBI appear to be looking even wider under a clandestine program code-named "PRISM" that was revealed in a story posted late Thursday by The Washington Post. PRISM gives the U.S. government access to email, documents, audio, video, photographs and other data belonging to foreigners on foreign soil who are under investigation, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper said it reviewed a confidential roster of companies and services participating in PRISM. The companies included AOL Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Skype, YouTube and Paltalk.

In statements, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they only provide the government with user data required under the law. (Google runs YouTube and Microsoft owns Skype.) AOL and Paltalk didn't immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

The NSA isn't getting customer names or the content of phone conversations under the Verizon court order, but that doesn't mean the information can't be tied to other data coming in through the PRISM program to look into people's lives, according to experts.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the bits and bytes left behind from people's electronic interactions can be cobbled together to draw conclusions about their habits, friendships and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers.

It's all part of a phenomenon known as "Big Data," a catchphrase increasingly used to describe the science of analyzing the vast amount of information collected through mobile devices, Web browsers and check-out stands. Analysts use powerful computers to detect trends and create digital dossiers about people.

The Obama administration and lawmakers privy to the NSA's surveillance aren't saying anything about the collection of the Verizon customers' records beyond that it's in the interest of national security. The sweeping court order covers the Verizon records of every mobile and landline phone call from April 25 through July 19, according to The Guardian.

It's likely the Verizon phone records are being matched with an even broader set of data, said Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo.

"My sense is they are looking for network patterns," she said. "They are looking for who is connected to whom and whether they can put any timelines together. They are also probably trying to identify locations where people are calling from."

Under the court order, the Verizon records include the duration of every call but not the locations of mobile calls.

The location information is particularly valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations like the one the NSA is running, said Cindy Cohn, a legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that has been fighting the government's collection of personal phone records since 2006. The foundation is currently suing over the government's collection of U.S. citizens' communications in a case that dates back to the administration of President George W. Bush.

"It's incredibly invasive," Cohn said. "This is a consequence of the fact that we have so many third parties that have accumulated significant information about our everyday lives."

It's such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark., company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.

The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet —and sleek smartphones— have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.

"I don't think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all," said Gartner analyst Douglas Laney.

In a sign of the NSA's determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The $2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security. The Washington Post's disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that U.S. government's Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell's "1984" novel.

"The fact that the government can tell all the phone carriers and Internet service providers to hand over all this data sort of gives them carte blanche to build profiles of people they are targeting in a very different way than any company can," Khatibloo said.

In most instances, Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on "like" buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what their users like and divine where they are. It's all in aid of showing users ads about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.

Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.

Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer's preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. Amazon.com Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.

The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world's biggest data bank, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection director.

Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because he or she bought products linked to increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.

"We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm," Vladeck said.

Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about people. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Ronald Vinson.

The NSA "differs from a commercial enterprise in the sense that there are checks in the judicial system and in Congress," Vladeck said. "If you believe in the way our government is supposed to work, then you should have some faith that those checks are meaningful. If you are skeptical about government, then you probably don't think that kind of oversight means anything."

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government has been secretly collecting the telephonerecords of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephonerecords of U.S. citizens, but critics said it was a huge over-reach.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday that the top secret court order for telephone records is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice. She spoke to reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The sweeping roundup of U.S. phone records has been going on for years and was a key part of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, a U.S. official said Thursday.

The White House offered no immediate on-the-record comment. A senior administration official did not confirm the Guardian newspaper report that the NSA has been collecting the records, but the authenticity of the document was not disputed by the White House. The administration official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name.

The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the Guardian reported. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the NSA information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether the people are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The disclosure raised a number of questions: What was the government looking for? Were other big telephone companies under similar orders to turn over information? How was the information used?

Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted that privacy was essential in the digital era.

"Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" wrote Gore, the Democrat who lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the Obama administration should disclose the facts.

"I think that they have an obligation to respond immediately," said Wyden, a frequent critic of government actions dealing with Americans' privacy.

Under Bush, the National Security Agency built a highly classified wiretapping program to monitor emails and phone calls worldwide. The full details of that program remain unknown, but one aspect was to monitor massive numbers of incoming and outgoing U.S. calls to look for suspicious patterns, said an official familiar with the program. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

After The New York Times revealed the existence of that wiretapping program, the roundup continued under authority granted in the USA Patriot Act, the official said.

The official did not know if the program was continuous or whether it stopped and restarted at times.

The official had not seen the court order released by the Guardian newspaper but said it was consistent with similar authorizations the Justice Department has received.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment.

The NSA had no immediate comment. The agency is sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. In a brochure it distributes, which includes a DVD for reporters to view video that it provides for public relations purposes, it pledges that the agency "is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and Americans' civil liberties — and its commitment to accountability," and says, "Earning the American public's trust is paramount."

Verizon Communications Inc. listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April — 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phonelines and about 10 million commercial lines. The court order didn't specify which customers' records were being tracked.

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The administration official said, "On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls."

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

The FISA court order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compelled Verizon to provide the NSA with electronic copies of "all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad" or "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls," The Guardian said.

The law on which the order explicitly relies is the "business records" provision of the USA Patriot Act.