WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — A newly declassified order reveals that the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) rejected a Verizon legal challenge in defense of Americans’ telephone privacy rights, instead ruling that the government is constitutionally protected in collecting billions of Americans’ detailed phone data.
The order comes in response to a January 2014 petition filed by Verizon that challenged the National Security Agency’s authority for mass surveillance and metadata collection of Americans’ phone records. The Verizon legal challenge followed U.S. District Judge Richard Leon’s December ruling that the NSA program’s “indiscriminate” and “arbitrary invasion” of U.S. citizens’ personal data was most likely unconstitutional, The Washington Post reports.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Leon said, from the Courthouse News report.
Leon added that he thought current U.S Supreme Court rules from the 1979 Smith v. Maryland were outdated, saying modern “almost-Orewellian technology” enables the involuntary intrusion into people’s dialed numbers and detailed phone call content “…unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979.”
But FISC Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in March that Judge Leon’s legal analysis was “unpersuasive,” she rejected Verizon’s January petition, and affirmed the government’s authority to collect Americans’ phone records.
In February, the Justice Department said FISC had reviewed Leon’s ruling along with other federal and surveillance court judges – and they upheld that the NSA program was constitutional.
In the newly declassified order, Judge Collyer said the 1979 Smith v. Maryland ruling set an “indistinguishable” precedent, even for modern NSA phone metadata collection.
The Smith case ruling stated that a person has no expectation of privacy with phone records because one “voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company,” and therefore assumes the risk that such information could be given to authorities, Courthouse News reports.
“The information [redacted] produces to NSA as part of the telephony metadata program is indistinguishable in nature from the information at issue in Smith and its progeny,” Collyer wrote in the order. “It includes dialed and incoming telephone numbers and other numbers pertaining to the placing or routing of calls, as well as the date, time, and duration of calls. It does not include the ‘contents’ of any communications.”
Because petitioners’ names are redacted, Verizon declined to confirm or deny to The Washington Post whether it was the company that filed the challenge, but the Post reports that individuals with knowledge of the matter confirmed it was Verizon.
Verizon is the second-largest land-line company in the country, and was the first phone company revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that was given a court order to hand information over to the surveillance agency.