MAY 7, 2015, 11:02 AM
A US appeals court has ruled the Patriot Act never authorized the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' phone records, and its opinion reveals just how unprecedented in scope that collection was.
The laws that the US government used to defend its vast surveillance program "have never been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here," the opinion from the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit stated.
Ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle in 2013 on the agency's surveillance program, which collected so-called metadata from phone calls. (Metadata includes phone numbers, duration of calls, and times of calls.)
While metadata collection doesn't monitor the content of what people say, the appeals court described the volume of the information the government sought as "staggering" and not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act as the government argued it was.
The NSA's metadata collection was much broader in scope than other methods the government uses to collect information like search warrants and subpoenas, the appeals court said. From the opinion:
Search warrants and document subpoenas typically seek the records of a particular individual or corporation under investigation, and cover particular time periods when the events under investigation occurred. The orders at issue here contain no such limits ... The records demanded are not those of suspects under investigation, or of people or businesses that have contact with such subjects, or of people or businesses that have contact with others who are in contact with the subjects — they extend to every record that exists, and indeed to records that do not yet exist ... The government can point to no grand jury subpoena that is remotely comparable to the real‐time data collection undertaken under this program.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is set to expire this summer. If Congress renews it the US government may ask the Supreme Court to overturn the Second Circuit's spying decision.
"This was a surprising decision given the reluctance of courts to second-guess intelligence-gathering in the war on terror," UCLA law professor Adam Winkler told Business Insider in an email. "Given the importance of this ruling for national security, the Supreme Court is likely to step in."