A U.S. federal judge has dealt a blow, at least a temporary one, to the National Security Associations bulk collection of domestic phone records program, ordering the agency to shut it down. The order comes just weeks before the NSA is to launch a new collection program.
Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says the program is most likely unconstitutional.
In his ruling, Judge Leon writes, “With the government’s authority to operate the bulk Telephony Metadata Program quickly coming to an end, this case is perhaps the last chapter in the judiciary’s evaluation of this particular program’s compatibility with the Constitution. It will not, however, be the last chapter in the ongoing struggle to balance privacy rights and national security interests under our Constitution in an age of evolving technological wizardry.”
Under the program, the NSA has been collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk from telephone companies, using the data to analyze and track social links between people in its hunt for hidden associates of terrorism suspects.
Judge Leon cited one specific case in his cease and desist orders, telling the NSA to stop collecting phone records of one Verizon customer – a lawyer in California. He writes he does so knowing that the Justice Department has said that blocking the NSA’s collection of just one person’s records might require shutting down the entire program because it would be technically difficult to screen him out.
The Justice Department says it is reviewing Judge Leon’s decision but made no further comment on whether it would appeal the decision.
Prior to the decision, the NSA sent a memo to Congress saying that testing of the phone data replacement system has begun.