US judge orders NSA to stop collecting phone metadata

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Image of constitution courtesy of ShutterstockOn Monday, a US federal judge dealt the National Security Agency (NSA) its first legal blow, ordering the intelligence agency to stop collecting data on two plaintiffs' personal phone calls and to destroy their calling history records.

In a 68-page ruling, Judge Richard J. Leon of the District of Columbia said that the NSA's collection technology is "almost Orwellian", would likely horrify James Madison (author of the US Constitution), and is likely unconstitutional in its encroachments on US persons' liberty.

According to Politico, Judge Leon found that the program appears to violate the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

From the ruling, as quoted by the New York Times:*

I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.

The judge also said the the Justice Department had failed to demonstrate that collecting the mobile phone records had helped to head off terrorist attacks.

This ruling is the first successful legal challenge to be brought against the NSA's phone metadata collection program - known as "PRISM" when it originally came to light - since whistleblower Edward Snowden in June released the first of a still-flowing stream of top-secret documents concerning surveillance by the NSA and other countries' intelligence agenies.

The case was brought by several plaintiffs led by Larry Klayman, a conservative legal activist and lawyer.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a similar lawsuit in the Southern District of New York.

(Please note also that the ACLU has released a spoof Christmas video [YouTube video] poking fun at the NSA, titled "The NSA is Coming to Town." You're welcome.)

Judge Leon is well aware that the government won't, and probably shouldn't, stop its intelligence operations overnight, and hence has stayed his injunction "in light of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues."

He's given the government time to appeal the ruling and said that this could take  six months.

The New York Times passed on a statement from Edward Snowden, distributed by leaked-document recipient Glenn Greenwald, lauding the decision:

I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.'s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. ... Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.

It's worth noting that, as Politico's Josh Gerstein points out, Judge Leon wasn't required to make a definitive ruling on the case's constitutional questions but does take account of which side he believes is more likely to prevail.

Thus, Monday's ruling does not mean that the NSA's collection program has been definitively deemed unconstitutional.

Not yet, at any rate.

*The site for the US District Court for the District of Columbia wouldn't load as of Monday afternoon, likely due to being utterly slammed with high traffic volume. The URL is courtesy of Politico.

Image of constitution courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to US judge orders NSA to stop collecting phone metadata

  1. TonyG · 308 days ago

    I think this ruling does show that Snowden was right to act as a whistleblower on the program.

    The US govt assertion that it is necessary for intelligence reasons still does not make it right. Governments should not be operating outside the law. If individuals and companies have to operate within the law, then so should governments. No ifs, no buts. Otherwise the difference between us and N.Korea is only a matter of scale.

  2. Andrew · 308 days ago

    I have to agree with TonyG on this one. America's allies also don't appreciate being spied on considering the majority know nothing about terrorism and won't even think about causing mayhem to their own people/country.

    So violating other countries privacy policies is a major no no. when will you learn America you are not the police of the world nor do you have the right to do what you are doing to the rest of the world. In a time of need you will find your allies less willing to help you as was the case of Syria as people of other countries will prevent their governments enacting the assistance that you may require... My suggestion to you is to stop and seriously think before you lose your allies.

    If you have to spy make sure you have the right people in your sights and not everybody as a whole. Treat your allies with the respect they deserve and may be then you will be respected too.

    • WidnrMSW · 308 days ago

      I totally agree that conducting massive surveillance operations on European civilian populations isn't going to help the US government take down international terrorist networks and definitely isn't worth the damage it does to relationships between the US and her allies, but I seriously doubt the US is the only nation conducting such programs. Germany, France and the UK are probably all spying on American citizens and each other. Especially since the likelihood of a terrorist attack is higher in Europe than the US. Those countries just haven't had their own Snowden figure to blow the whistle on their actions yet.

      I don't agree with your assertion that the US doesn't have the right to spy on those countries though. Americans are supposed to be protected from being spied on by their own government because of the 4th Amendment, but neither US nor international law prohibits a nation from conducting espionage on foreign populations. Same goes for European nations spying on Americans. That's what we have intelligence agencies for after all, to spy on foreign nations. I agree its counterproductive though and not the way allied nations should treat each other.

      Americans and Europeans should all be grateful to Edward Snowden for being willing to sacrifice so much to bring the abuses of the NSA and the US government to light.

  3. Randy · 308 days ago

    A judge isn't going to stop the NSA from spying on us. The NSA, the CIA and the government in general are only going to ramp up their efforts to secure secrecy within their departments. I wouldn't even put it past them to have hit teams ready to deploy the instant a whistle-blower is uncovered.
    There are still questions regarding Mr. Foster's "suicide" during the Clinton administration.

  4. Blake · 308 days ago

    Most nations spy on enemy and ally alike, they just don't get caught. America was caught in the act due to a traitor. Five years from now it could be any other country in the world. Snowden is a traitor not a whistleblower. This is evident do to the fact he betrayed his country by releasing all information he gathered and not being more selective on what he released. Such as information used to track terrorists. That is why not even Russia wants him.

  5. unattainable-unknown · 291 days ago

    If the Gov/NSA isn't doing anything wrong, they shouldn't worry about the rest of the world watching them and violating its sense of secrecy, correct?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.