The Obama administration on Thursday defended its right to monitor your phone records after a court order from April came to light authorizing such surveillance through July.
Perusing records of more than 100 million people in the Verizon Wireless network, which would have seemed unthinkable before 9/11, is a "critical tool" in the war against terror, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of an official statement.
The controversy arose after the U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian published a ruling by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington that an FBI request for data from Verizon "satisfies the requirements of 50 U.S.C.," which deals with the role of government in war and national defense.
Metadata, Not Names
"Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the anonymous official said in a widely published statement.
While the report started a national "Big Brother" debate on the heels of revelations that the Justice Department monitored reporters' calls and the IRS singled out right-wing organizations for scrutiny, key legislators said the phone records surveillance was nothing new.
"This program has been lawful, it's been approved," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told NBC News. "It began in 2009 -- what appeared in the Guardian today, as I understand it, is simply a court reauthorization of a program. The court is required to look at it every three months."
The order covers metadata, or basic records of phone numbers, times, dates and duration, without other identifying data. The FBI needs to get separate authorization from the Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to obtain identifying information. However, the ability to monitor the switching of calls from one cell tower to another could allow investigators to track an individual's travels.
The authorization does not require Verizon to hand over information about calls that originated and ended in other countries.
Telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan told us that more information could emerge that could make the issue even more controversial.
"We are right smack dab in the middle of this," he said. "Is this just Verizon or does this involve every other wireless carrier as well? If this is just Verizon then we have to look at it one way. If this involves other carriers then we have to look at it another way. We have been losing our privacy bit by bit for decades."
A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of people are concerned that "the government is collecting too much personal information," up from 58 percent in 2007.
On Our Nerves
"This is a kind of story that really gets under everyone's nerves," Kagan continued.
"On one hand this is a way for the government to help protect America. On the other hand this invasion of privacy really hurts. We have to decide when we've crossed the line."
But Kagan noted that even this extreme step can't necessarily protect America by monitoring calls from Al Qaeda. The bad guys can still buy prepaid phones.