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Government monitoring data from Verizon phone records, online servers - reports

Thursday, June 06, 2013

If you're a Verizon customer, the U.S. government may be accessing your phone records, according to a report in a British newspaper.

The phone records of millions of Americans are being collected, regardless of any suspected wrongdoing - that's according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Thursday morning, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, also the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference that the top secret court order to collect those telephone records is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice.

Other lawmakers have said that the practice is legal under the Patriot Act although civil libertarians have complained about U.S. snooping on American citizens.

A senior Obama administration official will not confirm the report but does defend the practice allowed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying:

"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 counterterrorism 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 newspaper sites a top secret court order that requires Verizon to give the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls in its system on an "ongoing, daily basis." The order began on April 25 and runs through July 19.

That includes calls made by Verizon customers within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. Verizon has 121 million customers.

Former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich says he supports whatever it takes to prevent a terror attack, as long the information is restricted to the NSA.

"Between the total failure of Attorney General Holder and his team and the IRS scandal and all the other things we're watching, why would anyone trust the government to keep its word? In an ideal world, if you had a trustworthy government and they said the only purpose is to look for terrorism, well, terrorism is a multinational project, and you've got to be aware that there are Americans engaged in terrorism," Gingrich said.

Former Vice President Al Gore Tweeted his reaction writing, "In a digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"

Under the terms of the order, phone calls are not recorded. The data collected includes the phone numbers of both parties, where calls are made and the length of a conversation.

Verizon representatives had no comment on this story, but did release an internal memo, which said, in part:

"Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy. Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances, and if Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply."

New reports are also surfacing that the government is checking our activity online. The Washington Post reports the FBI and the NSA are tapping the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Apple and others. Privacy advocates are concerned about potential abuse of the data.

The highly-classified program is code-named PRISM and officially it doesn't exist. The NSA won't confirm the practice. But the government is concerned enough it issued a statement, saying the unauthorized disclosure of classified information "threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation."

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