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What you should know about NSA phone data program

Friday - 6/7/2013, 9:06am  ET

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

MATT APUZZO
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government knows who you're calling.

Every day. Every call.

Here's what you need to know about the secret program and how it works:

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Q: What happened and why is it a big deal?

A: The Guardian newspaper published a highly classified April U.S. court order that allows the government access to all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis, for both domestic and international calls. That doesn't mean the government is listening in, and the National Security Agency did not receive the names and addresses of customers. But it did receive all phone numbers with outgoing or incoming calls, as well as the unique electronic numbers that identify cellphones. That means the government knows which phones are being used, even if customers change their numbers.

This is the first tangible evidence of the scope of a domestic surveillance program that has existed for years but has been discussed only in generalities. It proves that, in the name of national security, the government sweeps up the call records of Americans who have no known ties to terrorists or criminals.

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Q: How is this different from the NSA wiretapping that was going on under President George W. Bush?

A: In 2005, The New York Times revealed that Bush had signed a secret order allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval, a seismic shift in policy for an agency that had previously been prohibited from spying domestically. The exact scope of that program has never been known, but it allowed the NSA to monitor phone calls and emails. After it became public, the Bush administration dubbed it the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" and said it was a critical tool in protecting the United States from attack.

"The NSA program is narrowly focused, aimed only at international calls and targeted at al-Qaida and related groups," the Justice Department said at the time.

But while wiretapping got all the attention, the government was also collecting call logs from American phone companies as part of that program, a U.S. official said Thursday. After the wiretapping controversy, the collection of call records continued, albeit with court approval. That's what we're seeing in the newly released court document: a judge's authorization for something that began years ago with no court oversight.

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Q: Why does the government even want my phone records?

A: They're not interested in your records, in all likelihood, but your calls make up the background noise of the global phone system.

Look at your monthly phone bill, and you'll see patterns: calls home as you leave work, food delivery orders on Friday nights, that once-a-week call to mom and dad.

It's like that, except on a monumentally bigger scale.

The classified court ruling doesn't say what the NSA intends to do with your records. But armed with the nation's phone logs, the agency's computers have the ability to identify what normal call behavior looks like. And, with powerful computers, it would be possible to compare the entire database against computer models the government believes show what terrorist calling patterns look like.

Further analysis could identify what are known in intelligence circles as "communities of interest" -- the networks of people who are in contact with targets or suspicious phone numbers.

Over time, the records also become a valuable archive. When officials discover a new phone number linked to a suspected terrorist, they can consult the records to see who called that number in the preceding months or years.

Once the government has narrowed its focus on phone numbers it believes are tied to terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real time, record them and store them indefinitely.

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Q: Why just Verizon?

A: It's probably not. A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the NSA program says that records from all U.S. phone companies would be seized, and that they would include business and residential numbers. Only the court order involving Verizon has been made public.

In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. The newspaper identified phone companies that cooperated in that effort. The newspaper ultimately distanced itself from that report after some phone companies denied being part of such a government program.

The court document published by The Guardian, however, offers credence to the original USA Today story, which declared: "The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans -- most of whom aren't suspected of any crime."

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