ACLU files lawsuit over NSA surveillance

The surveillance program violates the U.S. Constitution, the ACLU alleges

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of a U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program targeting customers of Verizon Communications.

The ACLU's lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, contends that the NSA's bulk surveillance of Verizon telephone customers violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, giving U.S. residents the rights of free speech and association, and the Fourth Amendment, protecting residents against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The program, as described in a news report by the Guardian, exceeds the authority Congress gave the NSA in the Patriot Act, the ACLU alleged.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are James Clapper, director of national intelligence in President Barack Obama's administration; Keith Alexander, director of the NSA; Chuck Hagel, U.S. secretary of defense; Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general and Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Verizon is not named as a defendant.

"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said in a statement. "It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation."

Spokesmen for both Verizon and the U.S. Department of Justice, the agency handling press inquires on the surveillance program, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, which has received a secret surveillance court order published by the Guardian last week. The order required the company to turn over phone call details, on "an ongoing daily basis," including information about calls made and received and when the calls were made.

The NSA's blanket seizure of the ACLU's phone records compromises sensitive information about the civil liberties group's work, and undermines the organization's ability to engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists and advocacy partners, the lawsuit alleges.

The ACLU's lawsuit is not the first to challenge the NSA surveillance program after new details emerged last week in media stories. Conservative activist Larry Klayman, founder of watchdog websites Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch, filed a similar lawsuit on Friday.

The ACLU's 2008 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorized large surveillance programs, was dismissed 5-4 by the Supreme Court in February on the grounds that the plaintiffs could not prove that they had been monitored. The ACLU said it expects courts to find it does have legal standing to file the new lawsuit because it is a Verizon customer.

On Monday, the ACLU and Yale Law School's Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic filed a motion with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requesting that it publish its opinions on the meaning, scope and constitutionality of Patriot Act Section 215, the section of the law that allows for mass surveillance programs. The ACLU is also in the middle of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed in October 2011, demanding that the DOJ release information about the government's use and interpretation of Section 215.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: Five IT certifications that won’t break you
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies