ACLU wants to end NSA mass spying forever – good luck with that

Bulk phone record snooping is no longer allowed, privacy watchdog cries

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing James Clapper – the US Director of National Intelligence – and other government bigwigs to stop the NSA from gathering innocent citizens' phone records in bulk.

In a filing [PDF] to the United States Court of Appeals (2nd circuit), the union claims that even though a section of the Patriot Act that allows Uncle Sam to collect people's phone records in bulk expired on June 1, the NSA hasn't stopped, and is unlawfully tapping that treasure trove of sensitive information.

The spy agency loves slurping up this information, which includes who you call and when you call and for how long, in bulk to process later when needed. Privacy advocates want snoops, under direction from a court, to only access data on specific individuals who are under active investigation, rather than collecting and storing everything possible on everyone just in case it's needed in the future.

The ACLU has asked the appeals court to issue a preliminary injunction against the spies, which would halt their blanket access to people's phone records, while this case plays out.

"The congressional debate is now over, and after exhaustive consideration of the issue, Congress has declined to expand the government's surveillance authority," the ACLU writes in its filing dated today.

"Yet today the government is continuing – after a brief suspension – to collect Americans' call records in bulk on the purported authority of precisely the same statutory language this Court has already concluded does not permit it."

The US Congress did indeed let the Patriot Act expire this summer, but within days a revised version of the USA Freedom Act was passed to enable intelligence agencies to once again pull in personal information, this time with some restrictions on when and how customer information can be accessed.

According to the ACLU, however, the USA Freedom Act does not allow the collection of people's information in bulk, that the NSA is still gulping down data indiscriminately, and that the surveillance practice of harvesting metadata from phone carriers is now illegal. The ACLU wants the government to put a stop to it.

"The legislative debate to which this Court deferred has now come and gone. Although it considered doing so, Congress did not expand the government's statutory authority to permit bulk collection of call records," the union wrote.

"The government continues to collect call records in bulk, however, based on the same statutory language this court has already held does not permit it."

The case, ACLU v Clapper, is being heard in New York. The case number is 14-42. ®

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