Last updated: June 6, 2013 4:16 pm

Q&A: The NSA and phone ‘snooping’

What are they collecting?

Verizon has been ordered to turn over call records – the “telephony metadata” collected each time a person uses their phone. This includes the phone numbers of both parties on the call and other unique identifiers such as the subscriber’s ID and the unique ID of the phone itself. They must also provide the location where the call was made, the time it was made and how long it lasted. The content – that is the audio of the call or text in a text message – is not surrendered.

How is this useful?

Such information can be combined with the wealth of data published voluntarily online. Call and location data from Verizon can be matched with public posts on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to determine the nature of a relationship, or how often two people are in contact and why.

Data from a phone can establish a person’s routine and predict their movements, making it easy for agents to intercept them or monitor them, either in person or by planting equipment in advance.

By cross-checking call metadata, authorities can determine someone’s name, address, driver’s licence, credit history, social security number and more. Having this information makes it easy to detect any unusual activity such as contact with a new person or visiting somewhere unusual. Locations – such as those connected with extremism – can be red flagged so that anybody visiting those places is identified immediately. With the handset and SIM card IDs, they will know whether the same person is switching phones or SIM cards – a technique used by criminals to defeat wiretapping.

Who is affected?

This is thought to be the broadest surveillance order ever. It requires no suspicion or justification to access the data, and applies to all Verizon subscribers anywhere in the US. Calls where both people are outside the US are not covered. The order also contains a clause prohibiting Verizon from acknowledging its existence. Experts say such an order is unlikely to be restricted to Verizon, and that the other US operators are probably subject to similar orders. In other words, everybody may be affected.

Is this new?

Under the administration of president George W Bush security agencies admitted to large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, particularly in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. However, the top secret documents published by the Guardian on Thursday provide the first confirmation that the practice has continued under President Barack Obama.

Is it legal?

In the US, the Patriot Act contains a broad surveillance provision that could authorise an order of this sort. However, the Center for Constitutional Rights says its constitutionality is in question and several senators have complained. The Patriot Act provision requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to notify Congress about the number of such warrants – the centre says this single order covering millions of people is a deceptive way to get around that disclosure.

Should people be worried?

The existence of the order has little effect on daily life, but the ethics of such large-scale surveillance and the statement it makes about society and government will be hotly debated. The US authorities had access to all this information previously. What they have done here is make it available with little or no effort, and without having to provide justification to the courts for each individual case. How much US citizens worry will come down to how much they trust the government.

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