In perhaps the most startling decision handed down by the federal court system in quite some time, Judge Richard J. Leon of the District of Columbia ruled that the National Security Agency’s practice of gathering and collecting phone metadata (numbers called, length of conversations, locations, and times) most likely violates the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution, and as such he granted an injunction calling for the government to stop collecting data on the two plaintiffs in the case until an appeal can be heard.
Judge Leon’s 68 page ruling holds so much weight because it is the first federal ruling against the government sponsored spying program. Since The Guardian first reported that the NSA was collecting phone call data in June, all federal cases regarding the subject have ruled that the plaintiffs in the cases lacked standing because they could not prove that the NSA had spied on them directly
The decision handed down from the DC federal court on Monday saw the case a bit differently: “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 it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” stated Judge Leon in his decision.
Leon’s stance is predicated on the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
While Judge Leon and the plaintiffs in multiple cases against the NSA are using the Fourth Amendment to argue against the actions of the NSA, the federal government and the Justice Department are taking a different route. According to the Supreme Court ruling in the 1979 Smith v. Maryland case, when one dials a phone number they are handing that information to a private third party (an operator) and thus all rights to privacy pertaining to that information are forfeited.
In the court’s ruling Monday, Judge Leon found many faults with the federal government’s use of Smith v. Maryland to justify the actions of the NSA: “The almost-Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1970.” Judge Leon continued his rant against the use of Smith v. Maryland in this instance, stating, “Put simply, people in 2013 have an entirely different relationship with phones than they did 34 years ago,” he wrote. “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.”
Of course, none of the actions of the NSA would have been known had it not been for the leak pushed through by Edward Snowden, a former government contractor with the NSA. In June, Snowden leaked an estimated 200,000 classified documents to the press, securing his position as the United States’s most wanted man. After hearing the ruling by Judge Leon on Monday, Snowden released the following statement:
“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.”
While Judge Leon announced his personal feelings toward the case and the end-result he thinks will occur, the only decision handed down Monday was that of an injunction. Therefore, the US federal government will have time to gather evidence to convince Judge Leon that the NSA program is vital and does not violate the Fourth Amendment, a task which seems almost insurmountable when one considers the vehement language Leon used in writing out his decision: “I have significant doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism. 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.”
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]