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Big Loss for Big Brother: Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Government on Mass Surveillance

Friday, May 8, 2015

Big Loss for Big Brother:  Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Government on Mass Surveillance

On May 7, 2015, in a significant victory for Americans’ right to privacy and the rule of law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case of ACLU v. Clapper, which challenged the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. While the plaintiffs raised various claims, the court ultimately ruled that the provision of law the government claimed enabled the mass surveillance program did not confer that authority. According to the court’s opinion, “the text of § 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and … it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.” Your NRA had participated in the case by filing friend of the court briefs at different stages of the proceedings. We have also supported legislation to curtail the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of American citizens.

As described by the court’s opinion, the information captured under the program concerns “details about telephone calls, including, for example, the length of a call, the phone number from which the call was made, and the phone number called.” Additionally, “Metadata can … reveal the user or device making or receiving a call through unique ‘identity numbers’ associated with the equipment … and provide information about the routing of a call through the telephone network, which can sometimes … convey information about a caller’s general location.” Analysis of this information, even without listening to the content of the calls, can reveal detailed information about the parties to the call, including civil, political, or religious affiliations; social status and networks; and even possession of certain items.

The NRA argued in its briefs that NSA’s data collection program violates the First Amendment rights of NRA members by potentially chilling their willingness to communicate.  It also asserted that the NSA program could be used to circumvent statutory protections barring the federal government from collecting gun ownership records.  While the court did not resolve the case on those grounds, the breadth of opposition to the program from across the political and ideological spectrums likely underscored to the court the gravity and scope of the privacy violations at issue.

Since the litigation began, media reports – often citing accounts from whistleblowers formerly associated with U.S. intelligence agencies – have accused the federal government of far more intrusive practices against Americans who are under no suspicion of wrongdoing. This includes capturing and storing the actual content of digital communications (including cell phone calls and e-mails) and developing programs to automatically transcribe audio communications, the better to conduct keyword searches of them. Whatever the full extent of the modern surveillance state under Barack Obama may actually be, it’s clear that the very government which is supposed to serve the people treats those same people as inherently suspicious and in need of monitoring. A more backward view of America’s constitutional order is hard to imagine.

One of the fundamental flaws behind most types of gun control is that it purports to punish “the bad guys” by focusing its restrictions primarily on the good guys. The same defect applies to the practice of capturing huge amount of information about Americans, their communications, and their activities on the off-chance it might later prove useful when targeting a legitimate threat. Not only does this violate lawful citizens’ expectations of privacy, it can chill lawful conduct and the exercise of constitutionally protected freedoms, and it conflicts with American values as reflected in the Constitution and laws of our land.

We will continue to report on further developments in this important, unfolding story. While Big Brother is indeed watching, NRA is committed to ensuring that your Second Amendment choices and activities remain shielded from his gaze.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.