EFF lawsuit seeks details of NSA email, phone surveillance

The digital rights group asks for information on when the spying program targeted US citizens

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a lawsuit seeking details about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of email and telephone calls, with the lawsuit raising concerns that the agency has illegally targeted U.S. citizens.

The EFF Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the NSA has circumvented the legal protections for U.S. citizens in the FISA Amendments Act, a 2008 law that allowed the NSA to expand its surveillance efforts targeting foreign terrorism suspects. The law prohibits the NSA from intentionally targeting U.S. citizens, but the EFF pointed to a July letter in which a U.S. intelligence official told a senator the NSA has sometimes overstepped its limits.

On "at least one occasion," the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which oversees the program, found the NSA's collection of information was "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Kathleen Turner, director of legislation affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in the letter. The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In addition, the government's implementation of the surveillance law "has sometimes circumvented the spirit of the law," Turner wrote, in response to an information request from Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

In the lawsuit, the EFF asks for details of the spying operation. The digital rights group wants information on any written opinions or orders from FISC discussing illegal government surveillance, and any briefings to Congress about those violations.

The EFF believes the opinions of the FISC are law, "and the government can't classify and withhold the law from the American public," Mark Rumold, the EFF's open government legal fellow, said in an email.

The information is needed before Congress acts to re-authorize the surveillance law, Rumold said. Parts of the law are due to expire on Dec. 31, but current bills in Congress would extend the surveillance program.

"When the government acts unconstitutionally, the government shouldn't be able to shield disclosure of that information behind the veil of classification," Rumold said. "If the [law] is going to be re-authorized, there has to be an informed, public debate about the way the surveillance is being conducted under the statute and the privacy sacrifices Americans are being forced to make."

The U.S. public and many members of Congress "have very little information" about the surveillance program, he added. "Hopefully our suit will bring more information to light and help contribute to a meaningful debate on the re-authorization of the statute," Rumold said.

The U.S. Department of Justice, the defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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