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A federal Appeals Court this week will review the government’s controversial domestic spying program that collects the phone records of virtually all Americans, a once-secret practice that was publicly exposed last year by Edward Snowden.
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments Tuesday considering the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone “metadata” – the numbers, dates, and duration of calls but not the actual content of conversations. The case is poised to have far-reaching implications for digital privacy and could appear before the Supreme Court as soon as next year.
At issue is whether the government’s gathering of American phone records is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. The government has said that the practice, authorized under Section 215 of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, does not amount to a legitimate invasion of privacy and is necessary to detect national-security threats—although some intelligence officials have in recent months indicated that the program in its current form may be unnecessary.
Privacy advocates, however, argue that phone metadata can be extremely revealing, and that the government’s collect-it-all approach is unduly intrusive without accomplishing its stated purpose of preventing terrorist attacks.
Yet despite a promise from President Obama and efforts in Congress to rein in the NSA, few reforms have been enacted, even despite findings by a presidential review board and the government’s independent privacy watchdog that concluded that bulk phone surveillance was illegal and yields little to no national security benefit.
In response to inaction elsewhere, anti-surveillance activists believe the courts may ultimately provide the best way forward to reforming the government’s surveillance state.
The lawsuit, brought by conservative activist Larry Klayman in the wake of the Snowden revelations last year, represents one of several challenges to the government’s sweeping spying powers currently winding their way through the courts, movement made more notable by continued inaction in Congress or the executive branch to reform NSA spying.
A decision by the D.C. Appeals Court is not expected until at least early next year.