NSA data collection is legal, Federal Judge William Pauley rules. This decision comes just weeks after D.C. District Court Judge Richard Leon declared the mass collection of data “nearly Orwellian and likely unconstitutional.” Although Leon ruled against the Bulk Telephone Metadata Collection program run by the NSA, he later suspended his decision in the face of the grave consequences that can occur when there is not enough information to put a stop to terrorist activities. Congress has long stood by the program and defended its legality and usefulness, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reached that same decision after several secret hearings on the issue. The case is now in appeals court, and will likely end up before the Supreme Court if an agreement cannot be reached sooner.
Facing backlash for deciding NSA data collection is legal, Federal Judges are quick to point out that people routinely offer personal information to online retailers and businesses without a second thought. This information is often manipulated and used to turn a profit, whereas the NSA simply stores the data in the event it is pertinent in the future. In the Bulk Telephone Metadata Collection Program, the data that is scooped up is only used in the event it is needed. For example, although the NSA likely has information on exactly who you called last week and how long you talked with them all, it won’t pull it up unless you are a suspected terrorist or criminal. Supporters of the system say that this is what makes it so effective, the ability to reconstitute snips and snaps of millions of conversations to find those planning heinous acts. Without all the data, it is possible that connections will be missed. At the same time, many wonder why there is so much concern of terror attacks originating from within the U.S. and also feel that the promise of increased safety doesn’t justify the breach in privacy.
Although the system walks the line between protecting and intruding on U.S. citizens, supporters insist that although the collected data is very broad, specific instances of the data being used are rare, and the benefits are far-reaching and comprehensive. Many believe that the Bulk Telephone Metadata Collection Program is in place to pin crimes on people whose conversations contain certain keywords, but the NSA portrays it as more of a safety net, allowing investigators to look back at people only when there is a reasonable chance the person has committed or will commit some kind of crime. Despite the current ruling that NSA data collection is legal, Federal Judges and heads of the NSA are sure to be slammed with demands for increased transparency, the shutdown of the collection systems, and public access to personal data. President Obama has said that he will make definitive statements on all points of the case, but has also said that NSA data collection will most likely continue, and a major overhaul of the agency is unlikely. For many, just the promise of accountability and sanity from intelligence agencies is enough.
By Daniel O’Brien