ACLU Says National Security Administration Phone Data Collection Is Illegal

The American Civil Liberties Union filed court papers Monday arguing the National Security Administration's sweeping data collection violates the Constitution and should be stopped. The new motion expanded on the A.C.L.U.'s arguments against data collection in a federal lawsuit filed in June.

Intelligence officials have maintained that the N.S.A. collects only the metadata of Americans' phone calls, not the contents of the calls themselves. The so-called metadata includes the numbers called and the time and duration of each call. They say the database is only searched when there is "reasonable, articulable suspicion" of terrorism and is crucial for monitoring terror plots.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., said in June that the government's sweeping surveillance programs have foiled some 50 terrorist worldwide and are critical in the fight against terrorism.

The A.C.L.U., on the other hand, cited the writings of George Orwell and even the comprehensive German surveillance program depicted in the film The Lives Of Others to illustrate the potential dangers of large-scale government surveillance into the private lives of American citizens.

Edward W. Felten, a professor computer science and public affairs at Princeton, argued that gathering data on the three billion calls made every day in the U.S. means the N.S.A. is creating a database that could expose some of the most personal secrets of its citizens. Felton identified certain numbers, like a government fraud hotline, or a sexual assault hotline, that can reveal intimate details of citizens' lives.

"Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath or makes a large number of calls on Christmas Day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations," Felten wrote.

The A.C.L.U. lawsuit is one of several challenges to N.S.A. programs based on leaks by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who remains in Russia under temporary asylum after weekend reports revealed he was denied entry into Cuba.

The N.S.A. collection of call log data is approved in general terms by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on the 1979 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Maryland, which determined call logs recorded in criminal cases were not subject to protection under the Fourth Amendment. The A.C.L.U. contends that the Smith ruling involves "narrow surveillance directed at a specific criminal suspect over a very limited time period," and that the verdict does not allow for the N.S.A.'s current mass data collection.

"Americans do not expect that their government will make a note every time they pick up the phone of whom they call, precisely when they call them and for precisely how long they speak," the group wrote.

The Justice Department is expected to ask the judge in the case to dismiss it. Other individuals and interest groups are also pursuing court cases against the N.S.A.'s data collection.