The case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union revolves around the interpretation of a highly controversial part of the Patriot Act called Section 215.
This law allowed the government to seek the production of
“any tangible things” to protect the US against international terrorism in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Section 215 allows the FBI director to:
make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.
However, the law also specifies that the government can only require the production of “tangible things” that could similarly be obtained through a subpoena or other court order.
The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama interpreted the law to allow the collection of phone “metadata” (information about when people made calls and whom they were calling but not what they said).
In the years since the Patriot Act passed, law enforcement agencies have compelled Verizon and other telephone companies to turn over massive amounts of data which, according to the government, allows the NSA and the FBI to order root out terrorist networks. The government has said it doesn’t “browse” data but instead uses it to figure out who suspected terrorists are calling and establish potential patterns.
But in Thursday’s decision, the court ruled that the NSA’s mass collection of data far exceeded what Section 215 authorised — in part because the vast quantity of information sought under the government’s metadata collection program couldn’t be obtained through a mere court order.
“The government can point to no grand jury subpoena that is remotely comparable to the real‐time data collection undertaken under this program,” the opinion stated.
The court’s ruling puts additional pressure on Congress to reform Section 215, which is set to expire next month. Congress has reauthorized Section 215 multiple times since its inception, but the reauthorization faces increasing opposition. Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have said that they will not vote to reauthorize unless there are significant reforms to end bulk data collection.
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