The Guardian invited the White House, the NSA and the Justice Department to comment prior to publication of its report. All declined. Verizon, which is prohibited from disclosing either the FBI request or the order, responded "We decline comment.”
Telephony metadata is effectively the ‘traffic data’ described and sought by the UK’s Communications Data Bill: it is everything, including mobile phone location data, barring the actual content of the communication (which requires a separate court order in the US, and would require similar under the Communications Data Bill). The FISC order, requested by the FBI, is granted under 50 USC § 1861; otherwise known as section 215 of the Patriot Act.
It has long been thought that both the previous Bush and current Obama administrations have their own secret interpretation of section 215. When it was re-authorized in 2011, Senator Ron Wyden said, “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” It is believed that the dragnet surveillance ordered by FISC – this current order runs for three months and expires on 19 July 2013 – is an example of that interpretation.
“There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel,” suggests the EFF. “It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least 7 years, and probably longer.” The Guardian notes, “A furore erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported that the NSA had ‘been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth’.”
Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, commented, “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian...”
It is believed that the data is stored and mined by the NSA looking for connections between subscribers that might indicate subversive or terrorist plans. Civil rights groups are concerned because this surveillance applies to innocent citizens as well as suspects, and telephony metadata provides a wealth of information: who someone talks to, when and where, and can indicate personal sexual orientation, health conditions, relationships, economic status and business practices.