Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Federal district court judge rules NSA cell phone metadata collection is 'unconstitutional'

A federal judge has ruled that one of the NSA domestic spying programs, which collects massive amounts of phone metadata, is likely unconstitutional, Politico reported on Monday.

Similar lawsuits challenging the NSA are pending in at least three other federal courts around the U.S.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's program violates the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures. In his decision, Leon ordered the NSA to stop collecting the phone records of the case's two plaintiffs, conservative activist lawyer Larry Klayman and his client Charles Strange, who is the father of a Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan.

However, noting that the government will surely mount an appeal to a higher court, Leon stayed the order. Leon's full ruling can be found here.

In terms of "legal standing," the case was always on solid ground, as both Klayman and Strange are Verizon Wireless customers. The fact that Verizon Wireless was giving daily phone record dumps of all customers to the NSA was among the first leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Previously, the NSA's metadata program has been found consitutional, but those cases have relied on a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, Smith v. Maryland, which determined that no search warrant was required by authorities to install a device which recorded the numbers dialed on a particular phone line.

That, however, was a land line.  The cell phone was just a dream of science fiction back then, and things have radically changed, Leon noted.
The ubiquity of phones has dramatically altered the quantity of information that is now available and, more importantly, what that information can tell the Government about people’s lives. I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones.
In addition, Leon wrote, there is little to no evidence that the metadata collection has resulted in any solid results.
I have significant doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism. The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.
Edward Snowden himself praised the decision, in a statement given to journalist Glenn Greenwald and distributed to the media:
I acted on my belief that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.


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