US appeals court rules NSA bulk data collection illegal
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the NSA and FBI.
Washington — A US appeals court ruled Thursday that the National Security Agency’s massive collection of phone records of Americans is illegal because it exceeds the scope of what Congress authorized.
The laws used as a basis for the bulk data collection “have never been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here,” said the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a 97-page opinion.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the NSA and FBI, following disclosures about the vast surveillance programs in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The “metadata” collected from millions of phone calls includes the numbers called, times and other information but not the content of conversations. Still, civil liberties advocates argue the program is a massive intrusion on privacy while providing only minimal help in the anti-terrorism effort.
The court said metadata can reveal considerable personal information such as whether a person is a victim of a crime, or “civil, political, or religious affiliations” and “whether and when he or she is involved in intimate relationships.”
The New York appellate court stopped short of ruling on the constitutional issues of the bulk collection of phone metadata, but said the government went far beyond what Congress intended in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a law aimed at allowing authorities to thwart terrorism.
“There is no evidence that Congress intended for those statutes to authorize the bulk collection of every American’s toll billing or educational records and to aggregate them into a database,” the appellate panel said in the opinion.
“The interpretation that the government asks us to adopt defies any limiting principle. If the government is correct, it could use (Section) 215 to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector, including metadata associated with financial records, medical records, and electronic communications (including email and social media information) relating to all Americans.”
The law has been used by the NSA to locate people linked to potential terrorist attacks outside the United States and by the FBI in domestic surveillance.
The court declined to issue an injunction to halt the program, saying it would make little sense since the law is set to expire on June 1.
Lawmakers are currently debating whether to reform the law or extend it.
The court said that “in light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape.”
Following the decision, Representative Mike Honda of California said on Twitter that Congress needs to narrow the scope of surveillance.
“We need to rein in #NSA’s intrusive bulk collection programs. These programs are not what #Congress authorized,” he tweeted.
Daniel Castro at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology think tank, said the ruling means “Congress should act swiftly to protect civil liberties and national security, while protecting the economic interests of the United States, by prohibiting bulk collection and government overreach.”
The case is among several pending in US courts challenging the government’s surveillance authority. In this case, a lower court dismissed the ACLU petition in late 2013.
The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for further review.
In a separate case filed by conservative activist Larry Klayman, a district court judge in Washington ruled in 2013 that the NSA programs was unconstitutional. That case remains under appeal.
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