The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are officially joining an Idaho’s woman initiative against the National Security Agency (NSA) over the collection of cellphone data.
The NSA was sued by Anna Smith of Coeur d’Alene last year, who contended that the agency was collecting data that amounted to illegal seizure and search, and prohibited under the US Constitution’s First and Fourth Amendment.
Smith, a Verizon wireless customer, argued that the program violated her rights by collecting a plethora of details about her professional, religious, political and familial associations. EFF cites Smith as follows:
“When I found out that the NSA was collecting records of my phone calls, I was shocked,” said Smith, who is also represented by her husband, Peter J Smith IV, and Idaho State Rep. Luke Malek. “I have heard of other governments spying indiscriminately on their own citizens, but I naively thought it did not happen in America. I believe who I call, when I call them, and how long we talk is not something the government should be able to get without a warrant. I sued because I believe the Constitution protects my calls from government searches. I am thrilled that the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation agreed to assist us in this case. What Americans can reasonably expect to remain private is an issue of monumental importance.”
The ACLU also challenged the NSA phone surveillance program with its own lawsuit. A federal judge in New York dismissed the case, which is being appealed to the US Court of Appeals for 2nd Circuit. The EFF made two lawsuits against the program, which are due in district court after delays.
Smith is being represented by state Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, and her husband, Peter J. Smith IV. She has the assumption she was being monitored because of owning a Verizon cellphone and because the calls of a vast number of US citizens were collected.
The NSA says that it collects the number of calls received and made and the duration of a call, but the agency says it does not gather the content of the calls. Smith countered that she uses her cellphone as a primary means of communication with doctors, family, friends and others, and that none of her calls are the government’s business.
“Phones have become this beacon that tracks our every movement and every communication, and that was something that was never contemplated when the Supreme Court [in 1979] looked at telephones and their Fourth Amendment implications,” says Malek. “This is really a whole new set of jurisprudence that will come down. We have a reasonable expectation [of privacy over] who we call, where we call from and other data collected on our phones.”
The NSA has been collecting US phone records over nearly a decade to help prevent terror attacks, but critics say the agency hasn’t provided a relevant example where the collected information helped stopping an attack in the country. A government privacy panel and presidential panel found that the program was not essential to preventing these attacks.
Cindy Cohn, EFF’s Legal Director, said:
Anna Smith proves that a single citizen has the power to stand up for her rights and challenge the government when it tramples them.”
“EFF is proud to lend our expertise in pursuing her appeal, which could very well be one of the cases that makes it to the Supreme Court.”
The opening brief of the case is set to be held on September 2.
“The call records program needlessly invades the privacy of millions of people,” stated ACLU Deputy Director Jameel Jaffer. “Even the President has acknowledged that the NSA does not need to collect information about every phone call in order to track the associations of suspected terrorists. Dragnet surveillance on this scale is both unconstitutional and unnecessary.”
The call log surveillance program was first revealed in 2006. The report from USA Today revealed that NSA collected tens of millions of records from BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T customers. The news resurfaced last year when Edward Snowden leaked documents revealed the agency collected Verizon customer call records.
Democratic Senator from Idaho Frank Church warned:
“The NSA’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”
Whether the agency needs a warrant to collect local phone data remains an open legal question. If Smith’s case results in a positive outcome, it would be considered as a drive towards achieving privacy for the average US citizen.