US Supreme Court takes pass on cyberspying petition

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Although the Supreme Court of the United States decided Monday, not to consider a petition challenging the legality of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, one cybersecurity expert at IU expects the issue will eventually come before the nine justices.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Fred Cate said he was not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision but was still disappointed.

The petition was filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center after disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the federal government was collecting telephone data on all U.S. citizens. EPIC argued that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court exceeded its legal authority when it ordered Verizon Business Network Services Inc. to turn over to the NSA all telephone records on all customers.

Cate was the lead author of an amicus curiae brief that supported the petition’s call for the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus. After the petition was filed, Cate conceded the probability of the court granting the petition’s request for a writ of mandamus was slim. However, the petition argued, the court had to act because the NSA ignored Congress’s directives.

If the Supreme Court had granted the writ of mandamus, that would have prevented the government from overstepping its authority. Instead, the court sent the opposite message.   

“What the Supreme Court has said, by not saying anything, is ‘tough luck,’” Cate said.

The Obama administration argued the Supreme Court should deny the petition because it had not been considered by the district courts. The problem with that argument, Cate said, is that the district courts and the FISC are on equal footing and one does not have authority over the other.

Even so, a fair number of other petitions charging that FISC’s exclusive jurisdiction is unconstitutional are pending in district courts. A district court or appellate court agreeing with a petitioner would cause the administration to urge the Supreme Court to get involved, Cate said. Federal officials will likely contend the issue is one of national security.

The mere filing of these petitions will not be enough to get the NSA and the administration to rethink its actions, Cate said. In fact, the only thing that got their attention was the concern from industry and foreign leaders over the cyberspying by the United States.



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