NSA’s warrantless phone surveillance program gets green light

January 6, 2014

The recent ruling by the federal court has deepened the ongoing debate about the efficacy of warrantless surveillance by the government. Under the hammer is the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone surveillance program, in which the organization collected enormous logs of phone calls maintained under a common database. A verdict that upheld the program conflicts with another judge’s decision, passed just 11 days earlier. This judge ruled that phone spying is unlawful and a violation of constitutional rights.

New ruling favors warrantless surveillance

Phone Surveillance

Image by: Josh Larios

On December 27, 2013, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that NSA’s bulk telephone metadata collection is legal and “represents the Government’s counter-punch: connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to re-construct and eliminate al-Qaeda’s terror network.”

“While robust discussions are underway across the nation, in Congress, and at the White House, the question for this Court is whether the Government’s bulky telephony metadata program is lawful. This Court finds it is,” the ruling said.

Pauley believed that the phone surveillance program was a reasonable and vital tool in preventing major terrorist attacks like the one on September 11, 2001. He wrote that following the attacks, this vast collection of call detail records launched “a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data.” He also concluded that this kind of spying was less intrusive than the personal data that people voluntarily submit to transnational corporations, who in turn exploit the information for profit.

The previous verdict deems bulk metadata program “Orwellian”

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon’s December 16, 2013 ruling in Washington, D.C was the exact opposite of Pauley’s. The case was filed by a conservative activist and lawyer who said that the program violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search. The judge opined that such a massive collection and analysis of data “almost certainly does violate a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Calling the bulk phone surveillance program unconstitutional, he wrote that there was no evidence suggesting “that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics.”

Leon labeled the mass spying as “almost Orwellian” and disagreed with the defenders’ arguments that a Supreme Court ruling in 1979 that allowed investigators to look at the phone logs of a robbery suspect also gave them the right to collect the phone records of almost all Americans.

Decision to be countered in a higher court

NSA’s mass surveillance programs have been under fire after shocking revelations made by the agency’s ex-contractor, Edward Snowden. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the suit in New York in the wake of the revelations, is unhappy with Pauley’s decision. The ACLU appealed in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on January 2.

Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer representing the group, says, “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.”

The presidential review group, which consists of a panel of five intelligence and legal experts, recommended a mid-way point last month, taking both the judgments into consideration. The panel says that the data should remain in the hands of the telecom companies or a private party, and “a court order should be necessary each time analysts want to access the information of any individual for queries and data mining.”

The panel report lists out 46 reforms, and adds that “Free nations must protect themselves, and nations that protect themselves must remain free.”

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Category: News, Surveillance, Trespassing