The Cautionary Instruction: U.S. Supreme Court rejects NSA review

Friday, 22 November 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20131121gov nsalogo150The US Supreme Court rejected without comment one of the first challenges to the National Security Agency's (NSA) broad spying activities. The petition made by the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) was something of a longshot, but only because the secretive nature of the court overseeing the NSA required an unusual legal request.

EPIC bypassed the lower courts and went directly to the Supreme Court, reasoning that only the justices could tell the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court what to do.

The order being challenged forced Verizon to turn over all records of calls originating in the United States to the NSA. According to a copy of the order published by The Guardian, Verizon was required to produce on a daily basis all details relating to calls — termed "telephony metadata" — that Verizon created both for international calls originating within the US and all local calls contained within the country. The metadata in question is listed as including a variety of different types of data, including IMEI numbers, time and duration of the exchanges, and the two phone numbers placing and receiving the calls as well.

Verizon is not required to hand over data on calls that originate abroad, and recordings of the calls themselves are not included in the order. The document was signed by the judge Roger Vinson of the United States Foreign Intelligence Court on April 25th, and the order extended through July 19th.

The NSA has publicly acknowledged it received secret court approval to collect vast amounts of so-called metadata from Verizon and leading Internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

The information includes the numbers, time, and length of nearly every phone call to and from the United States in the past five years, but not the location or actual monitoring of the conversations themselves. To do so would require a separate, specifically targeted search warrant.

The revelations on bulk data collection triggered new debate about national security and privacy interests, and about the secretive legal process that sets in motion the government surveillance.

The challenge was the first case to reach the court since documents leaked by Edward Snowden disclosed the broad outlines of the NSA's spying programs. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, later identified himself as the leaker and is currently in Russia on the run from the U.S. government. He faces a series of criminal charges for disclosing the full scope of domestic data-gathering activities.


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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