Cybersecurity expert: ruling on surveillance program ‘extraordinarily significant’

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Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Fred Cate heralded the decision handed down Dec. 16 by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon as possibly landing a crippling blow to the federal government’s surveillance program.

The judge found the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata from billions of Americans’ phone calls to be unconstitutional. He ruled the surveillance program on virtually all calls made by customers of major U.S. phone companies violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Cate, who also directs the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, said by finding a constitutional violation, Leon made it considerably harder for Congress or the Obama administration to resurrect the program with operational or legislative changes.

“This is an extraordinarily significant decision,” Cate said, “and while it is certain to be appealed and so (this) is just the beginning of a longer process, it raises the bar for government surveillance today, and I suspect we will look back at this decision in the future as marking a key turning point in re-establishing some balance between the rights of people and the power of our government.”

Earlier in 2013, Cate authored an amicus brief in support of the effort by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to get the Supreme Court of the United States to curtail the surveillance activities by issuing a writ of mandamus. The high court decided a month ago not to consider EPIC’s petition.

Leon questioned the government’s claims about the importance of metadata collection for national security, and he rejected the administration’s argument about the limited role of courts. 

In its filings, the government had argued that individuals whose data was being collected had no right to challenge the constitutionality of the surveillance because Congress had granted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court exclusive jurisdiction over such cases but had only permitted the government to appear before that secret court.

Leon held a citizen’s right to judicial review should not be cut off because the government wants its actions to remain secret.

Cate pointed out the government has been making the same arguments in response to the numerous challenges to sweeping surveillance activities.

“Those arguments are shocking in their breadth and disingenuousness – namely, that even if the American public has had its rights violated, there is not way to seek remedy,” the Maurer professor said. “Judge Leon properly rejected those arguments outright.”



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