Why is the NSA spying on us?

Secretly collecting call data on millions of Americans won't do much to stop terror. So what is this data really being used for?

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Here’s a news flash: You’re not just paranoid. Your government really is spying on you. And while the Guardian’s blockbuster scoop last night concerned the NSA collecting data on Verizon customers, it’s a reasonable assumption it has similar orders in place with AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and any other carriers you can name.

Someone leaked a copy of a secret FISA court order approving NSA collection of three months worth of Verizon call detail records to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who proceeded to publish it. As the Washington Post's Ellen Nakamura notes, it has the look of boilerplate orders that have been issued since 2006 and get rubber stamped every three months.

The document proves what many have long suspected: That the wholesale surveillance of our phone, email, text messages and more that started under the Bush administration post 9/11 has continued unabated ever since.

What can the NSA learn about you, exactly, from this data?

It can learn who you called, when you called, how often, and how long you spoke. It can know exactly what device you used and your location when you did it, as well as the device and location of the person being called.

While the court order doesn’t allow Verizon to reveal personally identifying information, it wouldn’t be hard to get. It also doesn’t let the NSA know the content of the communications – it’s not a wiretap -- but it would be a convenient first step toward obtaining a warrant for that information, too.

The defense the government has used in these circumstances, the justification under the section of the Patriot Act the NSA was relying on for this order, is that such “call record” information isn’t private. It’s shared with a third party (the phone company) and thus has less protection under what is known as the “Third Party Doctrine.”

Per The Guardian’s James Bell:

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