Represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), First Unitarian Church v. NSA challenges the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass collection of phone records on First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment grounds. Filed in 2013, the case has not been heard or dismissed.
The passage of the USA Freedom Act in the summer was expected by many to end the practice of mass data collection. Its passage led some to consider whether it might render cases such as First Unitarian Church moot. Instead, under the new law, which takes effect in November, telecommunications companies will hold users’ data until the government asks for it.
The EFF now alleges that Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T have also participated in the NSA’s mass collection. The group says this happened when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) declassified findings that the companies participated when a “compliance incident” was reported involving those companies. With this revelation, data collection programs appear to be operating with assistance from more telecommunications companies than previously confirmed.
In a weekend editorial in World Affairs, Cindy Cohn, executive director of the EFF, explicated the importance of First Unitarian Church and other NSA lawsuits. Arguing against the common allegation that anyone with nothing to hide has nothing to fear, Cohn says without the freedom of association, people will be more reluctant to get involved with politics:
“In the civil rights era the Supreme Court held that the NAACP did not have to turn over its membership lists – its associational information – to the government of Alabama as a condition of opening an office there. The Court’s argument was straightforward: people simply won’t join legal, political or social change movements if they know that they could be exposed to a potentially hostile government’s prying eyes.”
Though its limbo status is puzzling, First Unitarian Church could still be dismissed or continued to be ignored. The passage of the USA Freedom Act could render lawsuits against the government’s collection of data futile when the government is no longer holding that data as of November. However, the government continues to decline hearing citizens’ concerns about what is happening with their data.