Updated: December 16, 2013, 4:26 PM
Comparing the technology used by the National Security Agency to George Orwell’s dystopian fiction, a federal judge on Monday ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata is likely unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s ruling found that an NSA program that was approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court likely violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures — and that the court precedent used in the past to justify the program is out of date.
“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 1979,” Leon wrote in his opinion.
The ruling came in response to two lawsuits originally brought in June by the conservative legal activist Larry Klayman and four other plaintiffs against government agencies and officials, as well as telecom and internet companies. In his ruling, Leon wrote that the bulk collection and analysis of phone records “almost certainly does violate a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
“It’s one thing to say that people expect phone companies to occasionally provide information to law enforcement; it is quite another to suggest that our citizens expect all phone companies to operate what is effectively a joint intelligence-gathering operation with the Government,” Leon wrote.
Leon found that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge the NSA program in court. Leon also entered an order barring the government from collecting metadata from Klayman and another plaintiff’s Verizon accounts, and requiring the government to destroy any of those two plaintiffs’ metadata collected through the program. At the same time, Leon said that — because of the national security issues at stake and the “novelty” of the constitutional issue — he would stay his order pending appeal.
The NSA’s collection of telephone metadata was first revealed in a story in The Guardian in June. The story was The Guardian’s first to rely on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The article was also the first time an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the court that oversees U.S. surveillance programs — was ever seen publicly.
The legal precedent used to justify the bulk collection program has been eclipsed, Leon said in his ruling, by both the government and public’s evolving relationship with technology.
“[N]ot only is the Government’s ability to collect, store, and analyze phone data greater now than it was in 1979, but the nature and quantity of the information contained in people’s telephony metadata is much greater, as well,” Leon wrote.
In a statement distributed through the journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden cheered Leon’s ruling.
“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,” Snowden said. “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.”
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