Federal Judge Rules NSA Bulk Phone Record Collection Unconstitutional
By Carrie Johnson
A federal judge in Washington says the National Security Agency's program for bulk phone record collection violates Americans' reasonable expectation of privacy.
The ruling, however, has been stayed pending a likely appeal.
Judge Richard Leon says the sweeping NSA collection of U.S. phone metadata constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
The judge says the Smith vs. Maryland Supreme Court ruling the Obama administration has used to underpin that program involved only a short period of collection, not the years-long approach the NSA has been taking based on advances in technology.
In sometimes blistering language, Leon, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, says times have changed since 1979, when Maryland was decided. Leon says advances in technology and people's use of cellphones mean that old case no longer holds.
In the Maryland case, the Supreme Court found that dialing a number was akin to calling an operator and asking to be connected to someone. When you hand that information to a third party, the court found, a person loses their expectation of privacy. Police, therefore, did not need a warrant to obtain "pen register" data from phone companies. The Obama administration has argued that the metadata — things like number dialed, time and duration of call — it collects in bulk is likewise exempted from Fourth Amendment protection.
The judge has ordered authorities to stop collecting data on two Verizon cellphone accounts. One belongs to conservative lawyer Larry Klayman, a plaintiff in the case.
But the judge has agreed to hold off on enforcing his decision to give the Justice Department time to appeal.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said it's reviewing the court's decision.
A similar case filed by the ACLU is moving through the courts in New York, but no ruling has emerged yet.
One of the challenges could wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court.