AMU Homeland Security

US Court Rules that NSA Mass Surveillance Was Illegal

Note: This article first appeared at InCyberDefense.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In MilitaryInCyberDefense and In Space News.

Edward Snowden’s name is synonymous with “hero” to some and “traitor” to others, depending on which side of the political aisle you find yourself.

In May 2013, Snowden released to two journalists an enormous number of classified documents related to government mass surveillance programs. Among the Snowden revelations, which are now in the public domain, were a number of very disturbing details regarding the global surveillance apparatus run by the National Security Agency.

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For instance, the PRISM program, the first to be revealed, allows the NSA direct access to Americans’ Google and Yahoo accounts. Reports also revealed details about an NSA call database called Boundless Informant and a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand the NSA millions of Americans’ phone records daily.

XKeyscore, an analytical tool that allows for collection of “almost anything done on the internet,” was described by The Guardian as a program that “shed light” on one of Snowden’s most controversial statements: “I, sitting at my desk, [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”

NSA’s Programs of Mass Surveillance Have Been Ruled Unconstitutional

Now, seven years after Snowden exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance, an appeals court has found the program “to be unlawful – and that the US intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth.”

The ruling, handed down by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, said “the warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional.”

This ruling comes only weeks after President Trump floated the idea of pardoning Snowden, who remains in exile in Russia. In the past, Snowden has stated that he wishes to return to the United States and would do so if he could be guaranteed a fair trial, something not likely under the crimes for which he is charged; specifically theft and violations of the Espionage Act. Under the Espionage Act, no prosecution of a non-spy can be fair or just. The 1917 law, enacted shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, was intended to apply to spies, not modern-day whistleblowers accused of mishandling allegedly classified information.

Despite previously calling him a traitor deserving of execution, President Trump said last month that he is “going to take a very good look” at the possibility of pardoning Snowden.

It appears that Trump’s recent talk of pardoning Snowden, along with the court ruling, have put NSA surveillance at the front of American political discourse once again.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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