NSA loses landmark case, collecting phone metadata deemed ‘illegal’

Collection of phone metadata by US National Security Agency rules ‘illegal’ by US Appeals Court that cites privacy concerns

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

A US appeals court overturned an earlier ruling and concluded that the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata exceeded the scope of what Congress authorised and was therefore illegal.

In a landmark case, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) v. Clapper, The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City said Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a counterterrorism measure, does not authorise such massive collection of phone records on the chance that they may contain relevant data.

“The government takes the position that the metadata collected - a vast amount of which does not contain directly ‘relevant’ information, as the government concedes - are nevertheless ‘relevant’ because they may allow the NSA, at some unknown time in the future, utilizing its ability to sift through the trove of irrelevant data it has collected up to that point, to identify information that is relevant,” the appeals court said.

The metadata collected by the NSA indicates the time, date and duration of calls, but does not include call content.

The statute known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act which the NSA was using to justify its collection of metadata is up for reauthorisation by a June 1 deadline, unless it is allowed to lapse.

Talking to The Washington Post, Edward Price, a National Security Council spokesman said the president believes that Section 215 should no longer exist in its current form, but “an alternative mechanism to preserve the programme’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data” should be created in its stead.

“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.”

ACLU deputy legal director and lead counsel in the ACLU v. Clapper case Jameel Jaffer voiced the privacy concerns raised by the government’s reliance on Section 215: “This ruling focuses on the phone-records programme, but it has far broader significance, because the same defective legal theory that underlies this program underlies many of the government’s other mass-surveillance programmes.

The ruling warrants a reconsideration of all those programmes, and it underscores again the need for truly systemic reform."

The appeals court’s opinion echoed that of Jaffer and called the possible future collection of any other existing metadata “an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans.”

TRTWorld and agencies