Verizon Customers Likely Can't Escape NSA Surveillance

Verizon customers outraged at the revelation that the company has been turning over their phone records to the U.S. government can do little to dodge the government surveillance program, even by switching phone carriers, telecommunications experts said.

"I think it's quite probable, given the breadth of the Verizon order, that similar orders have been granted for all major telephone companies," said Sascha Meinrath, vice president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "We are likely looking at a nation-wide fishing expedition of everyone's phone records and geolocation, updated daily and covering nearly every call originating in the U.S."

The Guardian reported late Wednesday that Verizon was turning over customer phone records to the National Security Agency to comply with a court order under the Patriot Act. The order, which took effect in April and expires in July, does not apply to the content of communications, but rather so-called metadata -- the location, duration and time of phone calls and the identities of callers.

It was unclear Thursday whether other phone companies had received a similar order because such orders are classified and the companies are barred from discussing them. Verizon and AT&T declined to comment.

On Thursday, the Obama administration called the collection of Americans' phone records "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

Such domestic surveillance programs aren't new. USA Today reported in 2006 that the NSA was compiling a database of call records obtained from U.S. phone companies. In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued AT&T on behalf of its customers, arguing the company had violated major privacy laws.

But in 2008, Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the phone companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits.

"That basically pulled the rug out for plaintiffs," said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, a public interest group.

Wood expected "some sort of consumer backlash" against Verizon for its role in the newly disclosed surveillance program, but noted that past outrage over phone companies' participation in domestic wiretapping has been short-lived.

"People get angry, but that anger subsides after a while," he said.

Even switching to smaller phone companies would not shield Americans from government collection of their call records because small carriers run their data over larger carriers' neworks, according to Karl Bode, a telecom industry analyst and editor of the blog Broadband Reports.

"The sad irony of this is that consumers and taxpayers are the ones paying to be spied on, whether it's higher rates on their cell phone bill to adhere with wiretap requests, or the taxpayer dollars needed to expand the NSA's supercomputer warehouses being designed to dig through all of this data," Bode said.

Bode and Wood both said that upset Verizon customers do have one recourse: to vote for lawmakers who pledge to amend surveillance laws to protect privacy.

"Consumers like to complain about it, but it's unclear how many bother to vote their conscience at the polls -- which is about all you can do in response," Bode said. "Complaining on Twitter certainly doesn't accomplish much."

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