Barack Obama rocked by ‘Orwellian’ phone-data row

The Maryland headquarters of the US National Security Agency. Picture: AP/ US Government
The Maryland headquarters of the US National Security Agency. Picture: AP/ US Government
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The Obama administration has been called “beyond Orwellian” after it was exposed for secretly ordering a major US phone company to hand over data on millions of calls.

In the latest snooping scandal to envelop the White House, Verizon was forced to give up information on an “ongoing daily basis” for 10 million of its customers.

No official explanation has been given for why the order was sought.

The White House would only say that it was a “critical tool” to fight terrorism and that the content of the calls was not monitored.

But there has already been a furious backlash including from former Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore, who tweeted: “It is just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the order “could not be any more alarming”.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted the order to the National Security Agency on 25 April under the controversial Patriot Act, which was brought in by George W Bush following 9/11.

The Patriot Act allows the FBI to seek an order to obtain “any tangible thing”, including business records, to gather intelligence.

The Verizon order is due to last three months, ending on 19 July, and covers all national and international calls.

The timing of the order was just after the Boston Marathon bombing, though it is not clear if that was the reason why it was approved.

It requests information from Verizon known as “metadata”, which is the phone number of each caller, the time of the call, how long it lasted and the unique serial number of the mobile phones.

It could also potentially reveal the location of the callers too.

The order only applies to the 10 million of Verizon’s 110 million customers who use its subsidiary Verizon Business Solutions, which covers business customers.

It is also not clear whether or not the order has been granted before, or if it was just being renewed for another three months.

Among those who expressed anger was Democrat Senator Mark Udall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has raised concerns in the past about snooping.

He said: “This sort of wide -scale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking.”

President Barack Obama is already weathering other privacy scandals after it emerged agents at the Internal Revenue Service spied on conservative Tea Party groups.

It also emerged recently that reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News had their phones monitored by the Justice Department to try and find out who leaked sensitive information.

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU deputy legal director, speaking of the surveillance order, said: “It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual.

Verizon has declined to comment. It remains unclear whether the practice extends to other carriers, though several security experts said it probably did.