Why is NSA collecting your phone records?

The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.”

Patrick Semansky

WASHINGTON — The government knows who you're calling.

Every day. Every call.

Here's what you need to know about the secret program and how it works:

Q: What happened and why is it a big deal?

A: The Guardian newspaper published a highly classified April U.S. court order that allows the government access to all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis, for both domestic and international calls. That doesn't mean the government is listening in, and the National Security Agency did not receive the names and addresses of customers. But it did receive all phone numbers with outgoing or incoming calls, as well as the unique electronic numbers that identify cellphones. That means the government knows which phones are being used, even if customers change their numbers.

This is the first tangible evidence of the scope of a domestic surveillance program that has existed for years but has been discussed only in generalities. It proves that, in the name of national security, the government sweeps up the call records of Americans who have no known ties to terrorists or criminals.

Q: How is this different from the NSA wiretapping that was going on under President George W. Bush?

A: In 2005, The New York Times revealed that Bush had signed a secret order allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval, a seismic shift in policy for an agency that had previously been prohibited from spying domestically. The exact scope of that program has never been known, but it allowed the NSA to monitor phone calls and emails. After it became public, the Bush administration dubbed it the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” and said it was a critical tool in protecting the United States from attack.

“The NSA program is narrowly focused, aimed only at international calls and targeted at al-Qaida and related groups,” the Justice Department said at the time.

But while wiretapping got all the attention, the government was also collecting call logs from American phone companies as part of that program, a U.S. official said Thursday. After the wiretapping controversy, the surveillance continued, albeit with court approval. That's what we're seeing in the newly released court document: a judge's authorization for something that began years ago with no court oversight.

Q: Why does the government even want my phone records?

A: They're not interested in your records, in all likelihood, but your calls make up the background noise of the global phone system.

Look at your monthly phone bill, and you'll see patterns: calls home as you leave work, food delivery orders on Friday nights, that once-a-week call to mom and dad. It's like that, except on a monumentally bigger scale. Armed with the nation's phone records, the NSA's computers can identify what normal call behavior looks like. Abnormal call behavior begins to stand out.

Once the government has narrowed its focus on phone numbers it believes are tied to terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real time, record them and store them indefinitely.

Q: Why just Verizon?

A: It's probably not. A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the NSA program says that records from all U.S. phone companies would be seized, and that they would include business and residential numbers. Only the court order involving Verizon has been made public.

Q: So a judge approved this. Does that mean someone had to show probable cause that a crime was being committed?

A: No. The seizure was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates under very different rules from a typical court. Probable cause is not required.

The court was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and is known in intelligence circles as the FISA court. Judges appointed by the president hear secret evidence and authorize wiretapping, search warrants and other clandestine efforts to monitor suspected or known spies and terrorists.

Q: If not probable cause, what standard did the government use in this case?

A: The judge relied on one of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act: Section 215, which became known colloquially as the “library records provision” because it allowed the government to seize a wide range of documents, including library records. Under that provision, the government must show that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that the records are relevant to an investigation intended to “protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

Exactly what “relevant” meant has been unclear. With the release of the classified court order, the public can see for the first time that everyone's phone records are relevant. The Justice Department has staunchly defended Section 215, saying it was narrowly written and has safeguarded liberties.