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Federal Court Rules NSA’s Bulk Phone Data Collection Is Illegal

On Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of telephone metadata is illegal under current law. The three-judge panel argued that the program exceeds the authority granted under the Patriot Act, and the judges likened the collection of cell phone data to seizing bank records or other personal documents without a warrant.

The court did not tackle the question of whether or not the program violated the U.S. Constitution but instead argued that it was in violation of existing statutory law. This leaves open the possibility that Congress could still amend the law to permit the continuation of the program. However, an effort to extend the program could face a future constitutional challenge. In addition, new legislative action supporting indiscriminate surveillance could spark a public backlash against members of Congress up for re-election.

The court’s ruling strikes a blow to the executive branch’s authority, imposing limits on spying that both the Obama and Bush administrations defended as necessary to fight terrorism. However, civil libertarians on both the political left and right viewed the program as unconstitutional and intrusive. Critics of the program argued that it violated the civil rights of ordinary Americans who were not suspected of any illegal activity.

The case was made possible because details of the surveillance program were leaked by Edward Snowden two years ago. Those documents revealed that the NSA had forced Verizon to provide detailed records of domestic telephone calls made through Verizon’s network. That revelation gave Verizon customers legal standing to bring a case before the court.

Even one of the lead author’s of the Patriot Act, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (WI-05), maintains that the law was never intended to permit such a far-reaching surveillance program. He recently stated:

I can say in no uncertain terms that Congress did not intend to allow the bulk collection of Americans’ records. The government’s overbroad collection is based on a blatant misreading of the law.

While it remains unclear what step Congress or the President will take next, the court’s ruling is at least a temporary victory for supporters of personal privacy and individual liberty. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has declared that the Orwellian bulk phone data collection program is illegal under current U.S. law. That decision should be applauded by ordinary Americans, left and right, because in a nation that values liberty, the metadata collection program simply doesn’t belong.


Image via Flickr

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