A US court has found the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance via phone tapping of Americans, revealed seven years ago by whistleblower Edward Snowden, unlawful. The US Court of appeals for the ninth district on Thursday said it found the program unlawful and that US intelligence officials who defended the program were lying.
The court said the US government may have violated the Fourth Amendment and did violate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The ruling was made in a case brought forth by four Americans, who were convicted for domestic terrorism for funding a Somalian terrorist organisation. The US government’s recordings of tapped phone calls made by them was key to their conviction. Until Snowden revealed evidence to the contrary, US intelligence officials publicly insisted that the NSA never knowingly collected information on Americans.
Seven years ago, as the news declared I was being charged as a criminal for speaking the truth, I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA's activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them.
And yet that day has arrived. https://t.co/FRdG2zUA4U
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 2, 2020
In 2013, Snowden made public that the NSA was secretly collecting phone call records and metadata from telecom companies, as well as emails, video chat recordings, including those of Americans. The US government had authorised this surveillance in classified orders by a FISA court. The dragnet required major telecom companies to turn over on an “ongoing daily” basis a large volume of their call records. This included local calls and those made to other countries. The agency was allowed to tap those within three hops from its target, as the Guardian as showed here. If you were suspected of being involved with terrorism activity, you could be tapped, along with your friends, and their friends.
We conclude that the government may have violated the Fourth Amendment and did violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) when it collected the telephony metadata of millions of Americans, including at least one of the defendants, but suppression is not warranted on the facts of this case. Additionally, we confirm that the Fourth Amendment requires notice to a criminal defendant when the prosecution intends to enter into evidence or otherwise use or disclose information obtained or derived from surveillance of that defendant conducted pursuant to the government’s foreign intelligence authorities.
– Ruling of the US Court of Appeals of the ninth district
The FISA court orders authorized the NSA to compile the records into a database and to query the database under certain conditions to obtain foreign intelligence information. In June 2015, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act, which effectively ended the NSA’s bulk telephony metadata collection program. Snowden has been living in exile after blowing the whistle in 2013, and still faces espionage charges. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which helped appeal this case, welcomed the verdict. “Today’s ruling is a victory for our privacy rights,” the ACLU said in a statement, saying it “makes plain that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records violated the constitution”.