There have always been discussions around how far the US government would go to keep a tab on its own citizens. This has been rekindled following a confidential document that was leaked showing the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting telephone records of millions of Verizon customers. The NSA is the intelligence collection wing of the US Department of Defense, akin to the Indian National Investigative Agency (NIA).

The court order, which was issued in April by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), requires Verizon, which caters to 115.78 million US subscribers, to give the NSA all the telephone call information in its system, both from within the US and other countries.

Verizon has been made to provide numbers of both parties on call, as well as location data, call duration, unique identifiers, as well as the time of the call. The contents of the conversation itself cannot be disclosed, according to the order. The law being used to sanction this order is the business records provision of the Patriot Act, 50 United States Constitution Section 1861.

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The NSA has been revealed collecting millions of Verizon customer phone records…

The court order was first reported by the Guardian on Wednesday, and gives the government unlimited authority to obtain information – termed “metadata”, for a period of three months, which ends on July 19.

The leak is a first because it points out that the Obama administration has been collecting communication records in bulk without a valid cause. This kind of mass scale information gathering was earlier seen under the Bush administration.

What is different this time around is that the court order seems indiscriminant. Normally, the purpose of such order is to find data about an individual or a fixed group who are suspected of being part of a terrorist outfit or agents of a foreign state.

What is disturbing is that the court order has specifically barred Verizon from either talking about the existence of the order itself, or disclosing the NSA's request for its customers’ records. The Guardian approached both the NSA and the Department of Justice but no comments were issued on the subject. The White House administration in turn has defended the move, terming the court order as an anti-terrorist measure. 

The definition of “metadata” being used here is important to understand. While metadata cannot give exact details, terming the telephonic information as metadata allows the NSA to access the same without the need of individual warrants. In addition, a 2005 court ruling judged that data such as the nearest cell tower that the phone was connected to could also potentially fall under the court order.   

It is not known yet whether Verizon is the only mobile phone service provider being asked to provide such information. Neither is it known if the court order is a solitary one, or part of a series of similar orders. The NSA was earlier seen being authorised by President Bush in 2001 to bring into play a massive collection programme of domestic telephone as well as Internet and email records.

This was again seen in 2006 when the NSA was found secretly collecting the phone call records of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to analyse calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.

These revelations bring to light the fine line that is being drawn between a user's private information and the need for the state to keep its citizens secure. While it can be argued that the contents of each conversation are not being monitored, it can also be said that such bulk collection of information is not needed, especially when information is being collected about citizens who have not been suspected of any wrong  doing.

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