The Guardian newspaper claims to have seen a secret court order from April that mandates Verizon give all its phone-call records data to the National Security Agency for a three-month period. The data is said to include both origin and receiving phone numbers, location information, call duration, digital phone identity numbers, and more—but not the contents of the calls. Every call on the network, whether it starts and ends in the U.S. or includes an overseas caller, is subject to the order.
On Thursday morning, the White House rushed to defend the data collecting, calling it "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." The order falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the government the right to ask telephone carriers to hand over information about calls.
The Guardian has a record of publishing controversial but true leaked U.S. data, including WikiLeaks material. Plus, the U.S. government has been accused previously of creating a huge domestic surveillance database.
The data on how many cell phone calls a single person makes each day are inconclusive, with figures from 2011 saying the average is eight calls (made and received), with 2013 U.K. data suggesting it's more like six calls. Assuming seven calls a day across Verizon's 98 million users, the data handed to the NSA could cover 686 million daily calls between hundreds of millions of people. This quantity of data is too big for human monitoring, which suggests that algorithmic analysis of the phone calls may be being carried out.