Judge rules NSA's phone data collection program is legal, tosses ACLU suit

The metadata collection represents "the natural tension between protecting the nation and preserving civil liberty," judge says

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. National Security Agency's bulk phone record metadata collection efforts are legal, turning aside a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union brought against the agency.

Although the collection program "vacuums up information about virtually every call to, from, or within the United States," it also allows the NSA to "detect relationship so attenuated and ephemeral they would otherwise escape notice," Judge William Pauley III wrote in his 54-page decision filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

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Overall, the metadata collection serves as the U.S. government's "counterpunch: connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to reconstruct and eliminate Al-Qaeda's terror network," Pauley wrote.

There also is "no evidence that the government has used any of the bulk telephony metadata it collected for any purpose other than investigating and disrupting terrorist attacks," he added. "While there have been unintentional violations of guidelines, those appear to stem from human error and the incredibly complex computer programs that support this vital tool."

The ACLU plans to appeal the ruling, according to a statement it released today. "We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the governments surveillance, and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in the statement.

Details of the NSA's domestic surveillance practices emerged this year through a series of disclosures by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the agency. Snowden is now in temporary aslyum in Russia.

Snowden's actions, while unauthorized, have "provoked a public debate and this litigation," Pauley said. The metadata collection program represents "the natural tension between protecting the nation and preserving civil liberty," he wrote.

Pauley noted that the court's role was only to determine whether the program is legal. "The court finds it is," he wrote. "But the question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide."

His ruling comes less than two weeks after another federal judge harshly criticized the NSA program and said it could be unconstitutional.

Judge Richard Leon made a preliminary ruling in favor of plaintiffs in that case, saying the father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, would be "aghast" at the NSA program.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for the IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com.

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