NSA phone records spying is constitutional, judge says

December 27, 2013

NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. (NSA)

U.S. District Judge William Pauley dismissed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging the National Security Agency's bulk collection phone records Friday, saying that the program is constitutional.

The ACLU, a Verizon customer, sued the the government in a case known as ACLU v. Clapper following the disclosure of an order compelling Verizon to turn over metadata on domestic phone calls in documents provided by former NSA contracter Edward Snowden. The civil liberties organization argued that the program violated Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and First Amendment freedom of expression rights due to a chilling effect on the behaviors of the public.

In a ruling that started by invoking the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pauley disagreed. Siding with the government, he said there was no evidence that the NSA was engaging in the data-mining "parade of horribles" the ACLU warned of in its testimony and that the minimization procedures put in place by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) were sufficient to protect the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

The ruling relied heavily on the 1979 Smith v. Maryland Supreme Court case. That case, involving a Baltimore burglary and the placement of a device to record numbers dialed by a suspect without a warrant, has been broadly interpreted by the government as authority to collect all types of metadata, including types never envisioned at the time of its ruling. While another recent ruling on the NSA phone program called Smith into question, Pauley's decision said it remains applicable to current technology.

In a statement, the ACLU said they intend to appeal the ruling. “We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government’s surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · December 27, 2013