[JURIST] A three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case challenging the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone data surveillance program. Prior to oral arguments, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation [advocacy websites] challenged in their amicus brief [text] that the NSA metadata collection program is an unconstitutional intrusion of privacy. The government has responded to this argument that one does not have a right to privacy in phone records kept by a company under what is known as the third party doctrine from the US Supreme Court case Smith v. Maryland [text]. Upon hearing arguments from both sides, the three-judge panel struggled to determine if the NSA surveillance program is a tool to ensure a safer nation or invasive threat to privacy. Relying on the third party doctrine constitutional exception, Assistant US Attorney H Thomas Bryon III argued that “[t]here is no protected constitutional interest that’s been invaded by the mere collection of the business records of a telephone company.” The oral argument [WP report] lasted approximately 90 minutes and featured questions from the bench that were critical of both sides.
Revelations surrounding the US intelligence community have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. In 2013 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence [official website] declassified [JURIST report] intelligence documents regarding data collection under Section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Also last year the Supreme Court denied [JURIST report] the petition for certiorari in a case challenging the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s (FISC) order requiring Verizon to turn over data to the NSA including US telephone calls and Internet exchanges. Last September the FISC released [JURIST report] a previously classified opinion explaining why an NSA program to keep records of Americans’ phone calls is constitutional. Also last September the ACLU urged the Obama administration [JURIST report] to curb the FBI’s surveillance powers.