Dianne Feinstein

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."

In this June 29, 2012 file photo, Gen. David Petraeus testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress said Sunday they want to know more details about the FBI investigation that revealed an extramarital affair between ex-CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, questioning when the retired general popped up in the FBI inquiry, whether national security was compromised and why they weren’t told sooner.

“We received no advanced notice. It was like a lightning bolt,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The FBI was investigating harassing emails sent by Petraeus biographer and girlfriend Paula Broadwell to a second woman. That probe of Broadwell’s emails revealed the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus. The FBI contacted Petraeus and other intelligence officials, and director of National Intelligence James Clapper asked Petraeus to resign.

A senior U.S. military official identified the second woman as Jill Kelley, 37, who lives in Tampa, Fla., and serves as a social liaison to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. A U.S. official said the coalition countries represented at the military’s Central Command in Tampa gave Kelley an appreciation certificate on which she was referred to as an “honorary ambassador” to the coalition, but she has no official status.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kelley is known to drop the “honorary” part and refer to herself as an ambassador.

The military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation, said Kelley had received harassing emails from Broadwell, which led the FBI to examine her email account and eventually discover her relationship with Petraeus.

A former associate of Petraeus confirmed the target of the emails was Kelley, but said there was no affair between the two, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the retired general’s private life. The associate, who has been in touch with Petraeus since his resignation, says Kelley and her husband were longtime friends of Petraeus and wife, Holly.

Petraeus resigned while lawmakers still had questions about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Lawmakers said it’s possible that Petraeus will still be asked to appear on Capitol Hill to testify about what he knew about the U.S. response to that incident.

Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the circumstances of the FBI probe smacked of a cover-up by the White House.

“It seems this (the investigation) has been going on for several months and, yet, now it appears that they’re saying that the FBI didn’t realize until Election Day that General Petraeus was involved. It just doesn’t add up,” said King, R-N.Y.

Petraeus, 60, quit Friday after acknowledging an extramarital relationship. He has been married 38 years to Holly Petraeus, with whom he has two adult children, including a son who led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan as an Army lieutenant.

Broadwell, a 40-year-old graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and an Army Reserve officer, is married with two young sons.

Attempts to reach Kelleyand Broadwell were not immediately successful.

Petraeus’ affair with Broadwell will be the subject of meetings Wednesday involving congressional intelligence committee leaders, FBI deputy director Sean Joyce and CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

Petraeus had been scheduled to appear before the committees on Thursday to testify on what the CIA knew and what the agency told the White House before, during and after the attack in Benghazi. Republicans and some Democrats have questioned the U.S. response and protection of diplomats stationed overseas.

Morell was expected to testify in place of Petraeus, and lawmakers said he should have the answers to their questions. But Feinstein and others didn’t rule out the possibility that Congress will compel Petraeus to testify about Benghazi at a later date, even though he’s relinquished his job.“I don’t see how in the world you can find out what happened in Benghazi before, during and after the attack if General Petraeus doesn’t testify,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants to create a joint congressional committee to investigate the U.S. response to that attack.

Feinstein said she first learned of Petraeus’ affair from the media late last week, and confirmed it in a phone call Friday with Petraeus. She eventually was briefed by the FBI and said so far there was no indication that national security was breached.

Still, Feinstein called the news “a heartbreak” for her personally and U.S. intelligence operations, and said she didn’t understand why the FBI didn’t give her a heads up as soon as Petraeus’ name emerged in the investigation.

“We are very much able to keep things in a classified setting,” she said. “At least if you know, you can begin to think and then to plan. And, of course, we have not had that opportunity.”

Clapper was told by the Justice Department of the Petraeus investigation at about 5 p.m. on Election Day, and then called Petraeus and urged him to resign, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

FBI officials say the committees weren’t informed until Friday, one official said, because the matter started as a criminal investigation into harassing emails sent by Broadwell to another woman.

Concerned that the emails he exchanged with Broadwell raised the possibility of a security breach, the FBI brought the matter up with Petraeus directly, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.

Petraeus decided to quit, though he was breaking no laws by having an affair, officials said.

Feinstein said she has not been told the precise relationship between Petraeus and the woman who reported the harassing emails to the FBI.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, called Petraeus “a great leader” who did right by stepping down and still deserves the nation’s gratitude. He also didn’t rule out calling Petraeus to testify on Benghazi at some point.

“He’s trying to put his life back together right now and that’s what he needs to focus on,” Chambliss said.

King appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Feinstein was on “Fox News Sunday,” Graham spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and Chambliss was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week.”

Taken July 2004, a worker watches maps and video feeds in the U.S. Homeland Security Operations Center.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ignoring a presidential veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Senate moved methodically Thursday to complete a massive defense bill that would deny suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation’s borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention.

The Senate rejected an effort by Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein to limit a military custody requirement for suspects to those captured outside the United States. The vote was 55-45. Feinstein, D-Calif., said her goal was to ensure “the military won’t be roaming our streets looking for suspected terrorists.”

The issue divided Democrats with nine senators, many facing re-election next year, breaking with the leadership and administration to vote against the amendment. Republicans held firm, with only three holdouts backing Feinstein’s effort.

In an escalating fight with the White House, the bill would ramp up the role of the military in handling terror suspects. The bill’s language challenges citizens’ rights under the Constitution, tests the boundaries of executive and legislative branch authority and sets up a showdown with the Democratic commander in chief.

It reflects the politically charged dispute over whether to treat suspected terrorists as prisoners of war or criminals. The administration insists that the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents need flexibility in prosecuting the war on terror after they’ve succeeded in killing al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

In its veto threat, the White House said it cannot accept any legislation that “challenges or constrains the president’s authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller have opposed the provisions.

Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, and that Obama has failed to produce a consistent policy on handling terror suspects.

The bill would require military custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. American citizens would be exempt. The bill does allow the executive branch to waive the authority based on national security and hold a suspect in civilian custody.

The legislation also would give the government the authority to have the military hold an individual suspected of terrorism indefinitely, without a trial. That provision had no exception for a U.S. citizen.

Feinstein offered another amendment, one that would prohibit the indefinite detention of a U.S. citizen without charges or trial. She has said the last time the government held U.S. citizens indefinitely was when Japanese-Americans were interned in camps during World War II.
Kirk has called the provision unconstitutional, violating the Fourth Amendment and the right of individuals to be secure in their homes from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Countered Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.: “We need the authority to hold those individuals in military custody so we aren’t reading them Miranda rights.”