The telephone records of millions of Americans are being monitored by the US National Security Agency (NSA), according to a report in The Guardian.
The newspaper said a secret court order was issued in April requiring telecommunications firm Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The report said the document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
Under the order, “the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered”, The Guardian explained.
The White House, NSA and Verizon all declined to comment.
The disclosure comes as the Obama administration is already under fire on other privacy and First Amendment issues, including the seizure of Associated Press journalists’ calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter.
The IRS targeting of tea party conservatives for extra scrutiny has also reflected badly on the White House.
“That’s not the society we’ve built in the United States,” said Kurt Opsahl, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing the NSA over surveillance inside the country.
“It’s not the society we set forth in the Constitution, and it’s not the society we should have.”
Verizon’s biggest rival, AT&T, did not provide any immediate comment when asked if the government had made a similar request for its data.
Verizon Communications listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April – 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines.
Former president George W Bush authorised the NSA after the 9/11 attacks to implement a bulk collection of US telephone, internet and email records. The practice proved controversial.
In 2006, 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”.
It had been “using the data to analyse calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity”, the paper reported.
Until now, there had been no indication that the Obama administration had continued the programme.