Why is the NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily?

June 6, 2013
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NSA Building

Every call, every day.

That is the “metadata” the NSA asks of Verizon. Through a court order, which was obtained by The Guardian, Verizon must turn over all telephony records, in their entirety, to the NSA. There is no discrimination, or noted target. There is no geography the NSA is interested in, nor is there any specific reason given for why the information is wanted. Plain and simple, the US Foreign Service Intelligence Court has ordered Verizon to turn over all records, relating to all calls.

What does it mean?

First, let’s understand what this order encompasses. To be fair, the NSA is looking for call records, not recorded conversation. There won’t be hordes of government employees listening in on conversations, or pouring over transcribed calls. The NSA wants to know what number originated the call, when it happened, and for how long. They also want to know what number was called, and the location of each person on the line as they move about.

While we don’t really know why the NSA wants the information, we can look to their scope and purpose to get clues.

What they don’t ask for is recorded conversation, or transcriptions of such. They also don’t ask for personal details of subscribers, like name or address. The court order is indefinite in timeframe, asking that Verizon give this data to the NSA “on an ongoing and daily basis thereafter the duration of this order”. The order is not restricted to the United States, as it notes all calls made, domestic and abroad, are subject to this order. Entirely foreign calls, however, are not subject to this order, as they are out of the court’s jurisdiction.

Verizon

Why Verizon?

It’s worth mention that Verizon is the only carrier we have learned of providing this information to the NSA. Requests for comment from Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T did not receive an immediate response. As the largest and most powerful network in the US, and perhaps on earth, Verizon is a sound place to start for whatever information the NSA is seeking.

There was no reason given for why Verizon was subject to such a court order, but we can assume it has to do with the size and scope of their network rather than subscribers. It’s also worth noting that the court order specifically mentions “Verizon Business Network Services”. Bloomberg describes VBNS as such:

Verizon Business Network Services, Inc. owns, operates, monitors, and maintains data and Internet networks in North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia, Japan, and Africa. The company provides converged communication solutions, such as local and long-distance voice, messaging, and Internet access services. It also offers service level agreements on various Internet services, including dial and dedicated Internet access, virtual private networks, frame relay, Web hosting, and managed firewall services. In addition, the company provides network infrastructure, including network design, implementation, and customer management solutions; and data, dial, asynchronous transfer mode, digital subscriber line, and dedicated and bundled services, as well as security products. It serves residential customers, businesses, and communications wholesalers, as well as federal, state, and local government entities.

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