mobile privacy

Some foreign-backed US phone companies reportedly excluded from NSA surveillance

At least two U.S. mobile operators, T-Mobile US and Verizon Wireless, reportedly do not participate directly in the U.S. National Security Agency's call metadata collection program because of their partial ownership by foreign telecommunication companies.

That said, call metadata from these operators' phone traffic is still likely collected when it travels over the networks of U.S. companies that work with the NSA and own the country's telecommunications backbone infrastructure, The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday.

Citing information received from unnamed people familiar with the matter, including current and former U.S. officials, the newspaper reported that the exclusion of T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless from NSA's collection program is likely related to their foreign ownership.

Germany's Deutsche Telekom has a 74 percent majority stake in T-Mobile US and the U.K.'s Vodafone Group owns 45 percent of Verizon Wireless, the mobile operator being a joint venture between Vodafone and American telecommunications firm Verizon Communications.

NSA surveillance revealed

Information recently leaked to The Washington Post and the Guardian revealed that the NSA used secret court orders issued under the provisions of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to force Verizon Business Network Services, a U.S. Verizon Communications subsidiary, to provide the agency with call metadata for phone traffic passing through its systems on an ongoing, daily basis.

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Verizon Business Network Services is one of the companies that operate the backbone telecommunications infrastructure in the U.S.

Call metadata includes the time, date, and duration of the calls; the originating and recipient phone numbers; the unique device identifiers of the mobile devices used for the call; and other traffic information, except for the actual content of the calls.

The secret court orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for cellphone metadata collection by the NSA are classified as top secret and "NOFORN," which means that "no foreign nationals" should be aware of them. This classification would make it impractical to serve such orders directly to companies like T-Mobile US or Verizon Wireless, considering their foreign ownership.

A number of civil liberties organizations and privacy advocacy groups have objected to the surveillance and begun legal challenges to the NSA's action.

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