Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, leaked up to 200,000 classified documents to the press the NSA has been in the spotlight. One of the programs of the agency that is causing quite a stir is its massive telephone surveillance program that collects data on phone calls made by individuals. This has made lots of people question the legality of the matter.
Early this year, founder of Judicial Watch Larry Klayman filed a lawsuit against the US government alleging that the surveillance program violates “reasonable expectation of privacy, free speech and association, right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures and due process rights.” US District Court Judge Richard Leon seems to agree on this and ruled that the program violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizures.
Judge Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said that “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every 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 Obama administration has been defending this surveillance program saying that it is one of the governments tools used in the fight against terrorism. Judge Leon however said that the government “does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”
This new ruling does not immediately stop the US government from collecting information as the judge has given the government time to appeal its case which could take up to six months.
Judge Leon is firm on his ruling saying that “The question that I will ultimately have to answer when I reach the merits of this case someday is whether people have a reasonable expectation of privacy that is violated when the government, without any basis whatsoever to suspect them of any wrongdoing, collects and stores for five years their telephony metadata for purposes of subjecting it to high-tech querying and analysis without any case-by-case judicial approval. For the many reasons set forth above, it is significantly likely that on that day, I will answer that question in plaintiffs’ favor.”
The government on its part cited the 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland, saying that there is no Fourth Amendment protection for call metadata. A call metadata consists of numbers called and received, the date and the time. The exact content of the call however is not known.
Judge Leon rejected this argument stating that “Put simply, people in 2013 have an entirely different relationship with phones than they did 34 years ago. Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire mosaic — a vibrant and constantly updating picture of the person’s life.”