On Monday, a Federal judge handed down a ruling noting that the National Security Agency’s spying on digital communications is likely unConstitutional.
In the first court ruling against the NSA’s data collection efforts revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden over the summer, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the agency’s actions violate 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The judge, a George W. Bush appointee, also noted that the Justice Department has failed to provide any clear evidence that the collection of so-called metadata has actually been used to prevent terror attacks.
“Plaintiffs have a very significant expectation of privacy in an aggregated collection of their telephone metadata covering the last five years, and the NSA’s Bulk Telephony Metadata Program significantly intrudes on that expectation,” Leon ruled. “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 judge rejected the government’s assertion that the 1979 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Maryland — which surveillance officials contend negates 4th Amendment protection for information like phone numbers and call logs — justified the bulk collection of digital communications data. The judge concluded that ongoing collection of millions of individual phone records is very different from the small-scale and targeted collection discussed in the Smith case.
“The almost-Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user is unlike anything that could be conceived in 1979,” he wrote.
The judge went on to insist that today’s “meta-data” provides a far more detailed picture of an individual’s life than the same information would have more than three decades ago.
“The ubiquity of phones has dramatically altered the quantity of information that is available and, more importantly, what that information can tell the government about people’s lives,” the ruling said.
“Put simply, people in 2013 have an entirely different relationship with their phones than they did thirty-four years ago.”
The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by conservative activist Larry Klayman, in which the activist requested an injunction barring the government from collecting any telephone records associated with him and another plaintiff.
In light of national security concerns, however, the judge suspended his own order while the government pursues a widely expected appeal. The Justice Department said it is reviewing Leon’s ruling.
Dozens of similar lawsuits issued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Americans Civil Liberties Union, among others, have been brought in courts throughout the Nation.