Court Rules NSA Phone Data Collection That Is Now Changing Anyway Is Still Legal



After several years of back-and-forth rulings, an appeals court in Washington, D.C. has ruled today that the NSA’s controversial bulk phone data collection program can indeed continue… at least until November, when it gets shut down anyway because Congress changed the law in June.

If you’re feeling a bit confused by what is or isn’t legal, there’s a good reason for that: this case has been going back and forth for years. And while it’s been doing so, the law itself has changed.

This particular legal saga began when the ACLU and others filed a lawsuit against the NSA. In December, 2013, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the bulk phone data surveillance program did not violate any existing law.

The ACLU appealed. In May, 2015, an appellate court vacated the ruling from the first judge, reinstating the ACLU’s lawsuit and kicking it back down to the lower court. The appeals court found that the NSA’s actions did outstrip the scope permitted to it by law.

Today’s ruling is the third round in that same lawsuit. This time, an appeals court has once again kicked the suit back. The court found that, “unlike some others who have brought legal challenges to the bulk collection program, plaintiffs lack direct evidence that records involving their calls have actually been collected.” Without that evidence, the plaintiffs have no standing to sue, therefore, and the original injunction is lifted.

But between the second and third go-rounds in the lawsuit, the law itself changed. Congress passed the USA FREEDOM bill in June. The amended law does not end NSA surveillance programs, but it does curtail them a bit. The bulk phone data collection that the NSA has done under Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act is now ended… and replaced with a slightly different phone data collection program.

Or at least, it will be. The law changed only a matter of weeks ago, and the wheels of bureaucracy do not spin so fast. The transition away from the existing bulk phone data collection program isn’t scheduled to be complete until November. And so until then, the NSA can indeed continue the old program thanks to today’s ruling.

A D.C. appeals court has lifted an injunction against the NSA phone call records program [Washington Post]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.