Appeals court rules NSA's phone data collection program illegal

A federal appeals court ruled against the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone call information on Thursday, completely rejecting the government's legal justification for the program.

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York unanimously found that Congress has not given the NSA approval for storing massive amounts of data so that it can be searched later.

The court said federal law permits gathering information only when there's something specific to investigate. By contrast, today's ruling says, the government is storing huge amounts of data so that it can be searched later when the need arises.

"Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans," the ruling said.

Maybe such a program is needed to fight terrorism, the court said. But if so, "such a monumental shift in our approach to combating terrorism requires a clear signal from Congress."

The court declined, however, to order the government to stop the program. It sent the issue back to a lower court, in view of the fact that Congress is now debating what to do about bulk telephone data collection.

If Congress votes to let the NSA program continue -- or votes to have the phone companies, not the government, store the data -- then the lower court can get to an issue the appeals court today left untouched: whether such a program, even if authorized by Congress, would be unconstitutional.

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