WASHINGTON — A Federal District Court judge ruled this week that the National Security Agency’s collection and storage of all Americans’ phone records probably violates the Constitution and is an “almost Orwellian” system that “surely . . . infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.” It’s the first successful legal challenge to NSA surveillance since June, when Edward Snowden began a cascade of NSA disclosures. It might just set up the most important legal debate about surveillance and personal privacy in decades. And it threatens to undermine one of the major legal foundations of the NSA’s vast surveillance network.
Judge Richard Leon of the District of Columbia, a George W. Bush appointee, ordered the government to stop collecting the phone records of two plaintiffs who brought suit against the NSA’s so-called metadata program and to destroy the information it has on them now. He stayed his injunction, pending an almost certain appeal by the Obama administration. But if the case is eventually heard by an appeals court it would be the highest-stakes and highest-profile battle to date over the NSA’s program, and a proxy argument for the broader ethical dimensions about massive government surveillance. Think of it as the NSA’s answer to the Scopes Monkey Trial — a public, and undoubtedly passionate debate about whether surveillance is still compatible with principles.
of privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches.
The judge ruled that the government’s collection of phone records relied on an outdated Supreme Court ruling, from 1979, that metadata isn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment -- an analysis that, on its own, is likely to ignite considerable debate. “The ubiquity of phones has dramatically altered the quantity of information that is now available and, more importantly, what that information can tell the Government about people’s lives,” Leon wrote. “I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones.”