The collection of bulk data on phone calls made by United States citizens has been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals, in a landmark decision that clears the path to a full legal challenge against the National Security Agency (NSA).
The agency’s data collection program was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in a series of leaks that began trickling out in mid-2013. Previously, a trial court had ruled that the agency’s surveillance program was not subject to judicial review, a decision the appeals court overturned.
Separately, the three-judge panel said that the data collection is “not authorized” by section 215 of the Patriot Act, the controversial law which has been used to justify bulk data collection.
“We hold that the text of section 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program,” reads the judgement. ““We agree with appellants that the government’s argument is ‘irreconcilable with the statute’s plain text.’”
In the meantime, the judges did not choose to end the program while Congress and lower court figure out how to address the judgment.
The ruling won’t end the NSA’s bulk data collection on its own, but the court did send a strong message to Congress, which is actively debating whether or not to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The section is set to expire on June 1, and the court’s ruling could make it harder to lobby for its renewal.
The court also weighed in on the question of whether gathering metadata — information gathered by wireless carriers that ties an individual’s phone calls to a specific location at a specific time — is sufficiently invasive to count as a violation of privacy rights. “In today’s technologically based world, it is virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen to avoid creating metadata about himself on a regular basis simply by conducting his ordinary affairs,” the court wrote.
“The more metadata the government collects and analyzes, furthermore, the greater capacity for such metadata to reveal ever more private and previously unascertainable information about individuals.”
Reactions from the anti-surveillance community were positive. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published the Snowden documents, called the court’s decision “a vehement rejection of the Obama Admin’s attempt to interpret Patriot Act for mass surveillance.”
2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul also cheered the court’s ruling: