Court Rules NSA Phone Surveillance Is Illegal

A federal appeals court has ruled that the National Security Agency (NSA) program of collecting bulk “metadata” on Americans’ phone habits is illegal, Wired is reporting.

For years, the NSA has been collecting what’s known as “metadata” — that is, records of who called whom, the duration of the calls, the locations of the callers — on Americans, without warrants, believing they were authorized to do so under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. On Thursday, a federal appeals court ruled that the law in question does not give the NSA the authority to conduct the phone surveillance.

“We hold that the text of [Section] 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”

The NSA bulk phone surveillance program was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, leading the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file suit to stop the program, alleging that it violates Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

However, the court ruling that the phone surveillance program is illegal doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the program. It will continue, for now, pending any appeals the government may file.

At the very least, however, the ruling forces Congress’ hand when it comes to renewing the Patriot Act, which is scheduled to expire July 1. Between now and then, Congress could rewrite the legislation to specifically allow the bulk phone data collection. It’s a scenario the court admitted was possible in its ruling.

“We [understand] that if Congress chooses to authorize such a far-reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously.”

In Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike praised the court’s ruling, according to the Guardian. Republican Jim Sensenbrenner claims to have opposed the practice ever since he first learned about it following the Snowden leaks in 2013.

“Today’s court decision reaffirms what I’ve been saying since the Snowden leaks came to light. Congress never intended Section 215 to allow bulk collection.”

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Adam Schiff said he plans to consider the court’s ruling when working with his colleagues on new legislation intended to replace the Patriot Act.

“It is my hope that next week the House will pass the USA Freedom Act, and Congress will use both our deadline and this court opinion as the catalyst for an end to bulk collection and the beginning of serious reform.”

Do you believe the NSA should be allowed to collect Americans’ phone “metadata” without warrants? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.

[Image courtesy of: Shutterstock/Carsten Reisinger]