Declassified Docs Show Rejected Suit Against NSA Data Collection

A phone service provider filed a lawsuit — which was subsequently rejected — against NSA data collection, according to a report declassified on Friday. The company’s name is redacted in the documents, but the Washington Post article revealed that it was the popular mobile service provider Verizon.

The particular issue at stake was the NSA requiring the company to relinquish phone records as part of the government agency’s metadata collection. The records collected include phone numbers dialed, call times, and call durations, but not the content of calls.

The documents report that it was in January that the suit was filed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). It was rejected in March.

The rejected lawsuit marked the first known time a phone company formally challenged or questioned the constitutionality of the metadata collection.
Verizon’s lawsuit was filed after Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ordered the government to stop collecting data on a pair of plaintiffs in a particular case. Leon’s order has generally been interpreted as an indication that the data collection may eventually be ruled unconstitutional.

Issuing the March ruling was Federal District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, who also sits on the FISC. She justified her ruling through a 1979 Supreme Court case, saying that Americans can have little expectation of privacy when dialing phone numbers. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disputes this interpretation of the case, Smith v. Maryland, which involved a single individual over a period of several days. The NSA, the ACLU points out, “collects hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records in bulk, indefinitely.”

Collyer also ruled that Judge Leon’s concerns about the duration of time the government holds information is “irrelevant in determining whether a Fourth Amendment search has occurred.”

Collyer was a recent figure in a lawsuit filed by the family of Anwar al-Awlaki, the suspected American-born terrorist extra-judicially killed in 2011 by a drone in Yemen. She upheld the government’s request to dismiss the motion on the grounds that individuals in the government cannot be held legally liable.

The rejected lawsuit marked the first known time a phone company formally challenged or questioned the constitutionality of the metadata collection. Last year, it was reported that no company had actively resisted the NSA’s program.

The papers also show that the company wanted the court to “vacate, modify, or reaffirm” its past decisions, a sign that the company was primarily looking to see that it was abiding by the established law. Still, the court ultimately declined to even listen to the case.

There still remain other outstanding lawsuits against the NSA and Verizon and the others may still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.