A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone data violates federal law.
The national debate over government surveillance has largely focused on the NSA program’s constitutionality. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit instead weighed it against Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and found it exceeds the boundaries of that law.
That section of the landmark post-9/11 law streamlines intelligence agencies’ right to legal seizure of business records “that are relevant to an ongoing foreign intelligence investigation.” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the USA PATRIOT Act, has himself argued in an amicus brief for the case that the current NSA harvesting of all information on Americans’ phone calls is too broad to meet the law’s standards, asking, “How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?”
The court noted that Edward Snowden’s exposure of the program’s details played a crucial role, pointing out in the decision that “Americans first learned” of the NSA’s metadata collection through Snowden’s leaks to British newspaper The Guardian in 2013.
It also indicates that the program operated without sufficient Congressional oversight, and that “if Congress chooses to authorize such a far‐reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so.”
However, it challenged the American Civil Liberties Union’s claim that the NSA metadata collection program violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures,” pointing to narrower instances of legal acquisition of phone records in the interest of national security. The court also suggested that “the extent to which modern technology alters our traditional expectations of privacy” was an uncertain area for future legal dispute.
In addition to documents exposing domestic surveillance, Snowden took another estimated two million detailing the “crown jewels” of the NSA’s foreign surveillance tactics, techniques and procedures.
The ACLU first brought the case to court in 2013. ACLU v. Clapper, as the case is called, was dismissed by a district court the same year.
Thursday’s decision paves the way for a higher-level legal challenge to the NSA program.
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