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Appeals Court: Bulk Data Collection Not Authorized

Even as Congress is working on a bill to rein in NSA bulk data collection, the Second Circuit federal appeals court has ruled that bulk phone record metadata collection is not authorized by the Patriot Act.

The appeals court vacated and remanded a lower court ruling that it was authorized, though it did not get to the question of the constitutionality of the program. "Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision," the courts said.

The opinion pointed out that the case served as an example of the complex problem of balancing national security, a job that the President has said in which "actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic," with privacy of citizens in a world where "surveillance capabilities are vast" and avoiding exposing a wealth of information is "difficult if not impossible."

The surveillance program was exposed through leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“While security is essential to a functioning democracy, privacy is the cornerstone of freedom," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in response to the decision.

"We cannot invade the privacy of the innocent as we look for the guilty. Congress should not rubberstamp surveillance laws that fail to balance the need for security and privacy in the 21st century digital world. It is time for Congress to formally end the federal government’s bulk data collection program of phone records, and I will not support a clean extension of this program if it comes to the Senate floor this month.” 

Sen Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is proposing Patriot Act renewal without the limitations on the data collection program being worked on in a compromise USA Freedom Act, though even those are not sufficient for a number of advocacy groups, which this week urged rejection of that bill as insufficient protection.  The court has just given them some heavy artillery in that fight.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.