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White House Evaluating New Court Ruling Declaring NSA Data-Collection Program Illegal

Administration will continue to work with Congress to reform surveillance laws, NSC spokesman says.

The White House is evaluating a decision handed down Thursday by an U.S. appeals court holding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk phone metadata collection program illegal.

"Without commenting on the ruling today, the President has been clear that he believes we should end the … bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists," Edward Price, assistant press secretary and director of strategic communications at the National Security Council (NSC) said in an emailed statement to Dark Reading.

The goal is to create alternative mechanisms to preserve the program's essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data, he said. "We continue to work closely with members of Congress from both parties to do just that, and we have been encouraged by good progress on bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would implement these important reforms," Price said.

Earlier today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone metadata records is illegal and exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized the agency to do.

In a lengthy 97-page ruling, a three-judge panel from the court overturned an earlier district court ruling that had found the data collection program to be legal and remanded the case back to the court for further proceedings.

"The telephone metadata program requires that the phone companies turn over records on an “ongoing daily basis” – with no foreseeable end point, no requirement of relevance to any particular set of facts, and no limitations as to subject matter or individuals covered," Circuit Court Judge Gerard Lynch wrote on behalf of the panel.

"Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans," he said.

The ruling involves a lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the legality and the constitutionality of the NSA phone metadata program. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the program in June 2013.

Documents released by Snowden showed that the NSA had secretly been collecting phone metadata records in bulk from U.S. telecommunications companies since at least 2006 under the aegis of counterterrorism. Information collected under the program included details like the phone number from which a call was made, the number that was dialed, and device ID numbers on all calls made in the U.S.

The NSA claimed that a section of the USA Patriot Act called Section 215 gave it the authority to ask U.S. telecommunications companies to produce call detail records, every single day on every single call made through their systems. The agency argued that the data was critical to its effort to spotting potential terrorists activities being planned against the U.S at home and abroad.

Shortly after Snowden’s disclosure, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the NSA challenging the metadata program's legality and constitutionality. The rights advocacy group maintained the metadata program exceeded the authorities granted to the NSA under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. In its lawsuit, the ACLU asked the court to declare the data collection program as illegal and to halt it.

The government on its part argued that the ACLU had no standing to bring the case against the NSA and claimed that its actions under Section 215 of the Patriot Act precluded judicial review.

In December 2013, a federal court judge in Manhattan sided with the government and threw out the ACLU's lawsuit on the basis that it indeed had no standing to bring the case against the NSA.

Thursday’s ruling reverses that decision and moves the case back to the court for further judicial review and proceedings.

"Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision," the court wrote without touching upon the constitutional issues raised by ACLU in its lawsuit. 

The court also refused to grant the ACLU's motion for a preliminary injunction against the NSA's metadata collection program.

Congress is scheduled to vote on renewing Section 215 on June 1. Since its inception, Section 215 has been renewed a total of 7 times, the court noted.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) expressed satisfaction at the ruling. "We are very pleased with the decision today of the federal appeals court," he said in emailed comments to Dark Reading. "The court concluded that the “relevance” standard in section 215 does not permit the routine collection of all telephone records."

That has precisely been the argument that EPIC and others have presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in a petition about two years ago, he said. "We anticipate that other courts confronting this question will reach the same conclusion -- bulk collection of telephone records was never authorized by the Patriot Act."

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