How The NSA Monitors America's Phone Traffic

Leaked court records revealed that the NSA is monitoring phone calls made by millions of Verizon customers—but how do they do it?

A scoop from The Guardian confirmed what many people suspected—the National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on the phone activity of millions of Americans. Using a secret court order, which was not disclosed to the public, the NSA obtained bulk phone records for Verizon's customers on a daily basis. Each day, the NSA would receive a massive flood of data from Verizon. This dataset documents which phone numbers their customers call or are called from, alongside some identifying metadata. This information was collected across the board from Verizon customers—according to the secret court order that was leaked to reporter Glenn Greenwald, sickly grandmothers were as likely to be screened as violent drug dealers.

What The NSA Was Doing

The secret court record that The Guardian got their hands on comes from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a "special court" established by Congress in 1978 to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations. In short, the job of the FISC is to approve secret search warrants for the NSA and other intelligence agencies.

Judge Roger Vinson authorized the NSA on April 25 to obtain unlimited data for a three-month period from Verizon. While phone calls themselves were not monitored under the terms of the court order, related metadata were. The data Verizon handed over to the NSA covered both domestic and international phone activity going through their network.

The kicker, however, is that circumstantial evidence implies the NSA has been monitoring Verizon phone calls in bulk for years. Evidence in on-the-record court orders, found by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), found that mass communications spying had been taking place for at least seven years. This spying also includes AT&T landline and mobile customers, and could include customers of all major telecommunications providers.

So Is The NSA Listening To My Phone Calls?

Not as far as the leaked court order shows (though that creepy NSA Data Center in Utah has fueled plenty of speculation, both reasoned and intelligent and crazy wingnut, that they might be doing just that). But, however, the NSA is collecting metadata related to the phone calls. This metadata is amazingly extensive and helps to explain cryptic public warnings by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) that the American public would be "shocked" by the extent of domestic surveillance of citizens by the Obama and Bush administrations. Both senators serve on the Senate intelligence committee and have access to classified information they are not permitted to share with the public.

This information can be shared by Internet providers as well. In 2012, a California romance novelist found out through court records that her Internet provider had been sharing her online activity with the NSA.

Metadata? What's That?

Metadata is data tagged to emails, files, documenting, and a million other things. Basically considered to be "data about data," it helps transmit the internal regulations that ensure your friends see your Facebook wall posts and your telephone call goes to the right number.

In the NSA's case, they received what's called "session identifying information"—this includes the physical location of the nearest cell phone tower to where mobile calls are made, the phone number dialed, the number of the person making the call, how long the call lasted, telephone calling numbers, internal phone company information, and the user's unique International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number.

What Can You Do With Metadata?

A lot. Just ask John McAfee. McAfee, the colorful anti-virus software pioneer, quit corporate life to move to Belize and start a harem, and embark on a second career that may or may not have included drug manufacturing and serious crimes. After McAfee was labeled as a "person of interest" by Belize authorities in the death of his neighbor, he went on the lam with a team from Vice. A photographer with Vice took a picture of McAfee and apparently forgot to scrub the metadata.

If that was in fact the case, it was big mistake. The metadata attached to the picture of McAfee likely tipped off authorities to his physical location. Because the picture was taken with an iPhone, it automatically embedded the location where the picture was taken in the metadata. As it turns out, the metadata showed without a doubt that McAfee was at a Guatemalan resort. He was arrested shortly after.

More relevant to the masses of ordinary Americans who are puzzled about why the government wants to know what phone numbers they're dialing, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution notes that the scope of the dataset is designed for algorithmic processing on "big data" platforms—the way the order is worded, it seems made for input into sophisticated software platforms that data-mine phone records to find previously unnoticed trends and patterns.

And, as a tipster wrote in to Talking Points Memo, this is pretty much what's happening.

So What Is The NSA Doing With All This Information?

That's the million dollar question about the government's semi-secret domestic communications surveillance program. We just don't know.

[Image: Flickr user Luisar; NSA Data Center image via Cryptome]

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