The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's logging of international phone calls made from the U.S. was illegal, advocacy group Human Rights Watch has alleged in a lawsuit filed late Tuesday.
The DEA and the U.S. Department of Justice ran the secret snooping program for decades without judicial oversight, logging "virtually all telephone calls" from the U.S. to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking, according to a USA Today report. The program did not record the content of the calls and was used to fight drug trafficking.
This is yet another government bulk surveillance program used for untargeted and suspicionless surveillance of U.S. citizens, affecting millions of innocent people, said the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which represents Human Rights Watch in the legal action.
According to the EFF, the secret program violates fundamental civil rights. The lawsuit aims to assert the rights of Human Rights Watch and of U.S. citizens to make international calls without being subject to government surveillance, it said.
The program, said to have been run by the DEA's special operations division, reportedly began logging phone calls in bulk in 1992 but was suspended in September 2013 after the outrage over the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance programs.
This lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California, seeks to ensure the program is permanently terminated, that it cannot restart, and that all of Human Rights Watch's illegally collected records have been purged from all government systems, the EFF said.
According to the suit, the DEA disclosed the existence of the program in January when a federal judge ordered the government to reveal more information about it as part of a criminal case against a man accused of violating export restrictions on goods to Iran. The DEA's disclosure showed that the it relied on administrative subpoenas to amass the database of call records, the EFF said, adding that the records were obtained without judicial oversight or approval.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are also listed as defendants in the case.
The challenge to the bulk collection program is part of a series of legal challenges by the EFF against what it said are unconstitutional government surveillance programs.
In 2013, together with a host of other organizations including a church and marijuana legalization and gun ownership groups, Human Rights Watch filed a suit against the NSA over a surveillance program that targets U.S. residents' phone records.
The EFF also filed a lawsuit against the NSA in 2008, alleging that the NSA installed equipment to conduct mass surveillance at AT&T telecommunications facilities to indiscriminately collect communications of all of the people who use that network. And last year, the EFF joined a suit filed by an Idaho nurse against President Obama and several U.S. intelligence agencies challenging the government's bulk collection of the telephone records.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to email@example.com