Board Rules NSA Taps Illegal, But Will It Matter?

The National Security Agency's program collecting billions of Americans' phone records is illegal, an independent privacy review board ruled Thursday. Members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board say that in the grand scheme of things, the phone logs haven't helped in preventing terrorism and the program should be terminated. It seems to be a growing consensus, with a federal judge ruling the surveillance is likely unconstitutional, and President Obama issuing new guidelines for collecting information. However, the recent conclusions from the five-member advisory panel don't have any legal standing. The findings make it unlikely that there will be changes in immediate policy, though the report still states that the statute it's based upon “does not provide an adequate basis to support this program.”

No single instance involving a threat to the United States was found where the telephone records program assisted in countering terrorism. The board says the FBI, not the NSA, should be the organization doing the data collecting. It only extends so far, though. Under the law, the FBI can only collect information related to a specific investigation, not a bulk load. The 238-page report released Thursday details that under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the program raises "serious threats to privacy and civil liberties."

“The connections revealed by the extensive database of telephone records gathered under the program will necessarily include relationships established among individuals and groups for political, religious, and other expressive purposes....Compelled disclosure to the government of information revealing these associations can have a chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

The conclusions were hardly unanimous, supported by a three-member majority. The two remaining dissenters say the findings were "gratuitous" and in turn highlighted the support of two presidents and judges who upheld the program. Moreover, they feel record collections could continue if additional privacy protections are instituted.

The board’s requests follow a long-debated, tug of war with NSA critics and the Obama administration. Last month, a presidentially appointed review panel found that the phone record database should be taken out of government hands but still have its powers preserved. Obama already promised changes, saying the program will tighten access and require judicial approval. Though it can't trigger any swift change, the most recent report definitively digs deeper into what warrants reconstruction, on both a national and international level.

Image: Ashley Batz/Bustle