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Why Government Phone Spying is Really About Big Data

Source: Popsci, Friday June 7th 2013

National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland

For the past three months, Verizon has handed over information on all telephone calls within its system to the U.S. government. This news, which broke last night thanks to a leaked court document, is a big story, but it isn’t exactly a surprising one.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to the protection of fundamental rights online, has long suspected this kind of broad surveillance. Last summer, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), hinted that the government has broader surveillance powers than people suspect. The agencies doing the surveillance all fall under the executive branch, but congress has the power of oversight. Last December, Congress voted to extend the act granting this broad surveillance power until at least 2017.

What that all means: While the actual Verizon surveillance story is news, it’s hardly unanticipated, and it falls into a much larger pattern of increased governmental surveillance powers post-9/11.

It also means that all of this is legal. The FBI had a warrant for the records it requested from Verizon, and, rather than break the law, Verizon obliged. Not everything was turned over to the government: Phone calls themselves are well protected by legal precedent, and obtaining warrants to listen to a tremendous amount of calls is much harder. Instead, the government asked for phone call metadata, which is kept and maintained by telecommunications companies. The metadata includes the time the call took place, the call origin, the call duration, and the carrier. In cellphones, it also includes the cell towers that transmitted the call, giving a rough approximation of the callers’ physical location.