Armed with a judge-approved surveillance licence since April 25, the U.S. National Security Agency has been secretly snooping on the telephone records of millions of customers of telecom giant Verizon, British newspaper The Guardian has revealed.

Less than two months ago, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court in Washington issued an order authorising Obama administration officials to obtain from Verizon “on an ongoing, daily basis,” all “telephony metadata” for both calls within the U.S. and for those between the U.S. and other countries.

The FISA Court also required the details of the surveillance activity to be kept secret, and The Guardian reported that the NSA, White House, Justice Department and Verizon declined to comment on the story before it went to press.

Though the “metadata” procured by Verizon does not include actual voice records of the conversation spied upon and only pertains to “call envelope” items such as originating and terminating numbers, call duration, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity number, and communication routing information, freedom of information advocates were alarmed at the sheer scale of the alleged government intrusion into private citizens’ lives.

Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “It’s a programme in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. 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.”

Meanwhile Attorney-General Eric Holder, who recently faced questions over a similar phone records surveillance of the Associated Press news agency, said in a Congressional hearing that the DOJ had “made tremendous progress in protecting the safety, and the sacred rights, of the American people,” and that members of Congress had been “fully briefed” on the NSA spying programme.

One of the journalists behind the Guardian scoop, Glenn Greenwald, said there had been earlier hints of deepening concern over President Barack Obama’s apparent willingness to pursue surveillance activities on a similar scale to his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Mr. Greenwald in particular cited the remarks of two U.S. Senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have for roughly two years “been stridently advising the public that the U.S. government is relying on secret legal interpretations to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be stunned to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.”

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