Lawsuit: Gov't Net Surveillance Breaches Constitution

John Lister's picture

The US government is being sued by civil liberties groups who say the security services' collection of personal data online fundamentally breaches the constitution. At issue is the question of whether or not the government's interpretation of the law correctly allows for mass surveillance without probable cause about specific individuals.

The lawsuit is led by the American Civil Liberties Union and is joined by at least nine other groups, including the organization that oversees Wikipedia. It makes the accusations against the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Justice.

The claims relate to what's known as "upstream surveillance", which means the government monitoring Internet data as it's being transmitted, often by having put bugs directly in the cabling and equipment that makes up the public Internet. It's a different issue to the much-discussed PRISM program, which instead gets the data from the records and servers of leading Internet sites and services.

Government Says Surveillance Has Legal Backing

The government says upstream surveillance is legal because of security laws passed in 2008 and 2011, along with a subsequent order issued by a court that convenes in secret. That single court order has been interpreted as valid to cover tens of thousands of individuals and groups. (Source:

The groups bringing the lawsuit argue that this legal strategy doesn't do enough to answer the constitutional requirement that the government and its agencies show probable cause before the more serious breaches of a suspect's right to privacy. They say the government agencies are breaching the first and fourth amendments of the United States Constitution; the first amendment upholds the freedom of speech, press, and religion, while the fourth amendment "prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause."

They also argue the court order used to justify the surveillance goes beyond the judicial powers granted by article three of the constitution, which establishes the judicial branch of the federal government.

Snowden Leaks May Be Game-Changer

A previous attempt to bring a similar case was thrown out by the Supreme Court, which pointed out that (logically enough given the secrecy involved) the groups making the complaint couldn't prove they'd been harmed by the alleged legal breaches. (Source:

This time, the groups say things are different because of the NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. They argue that because these documents confirm the NSA targeted users of particular sites, both those users and the sites had their rights compromised.

What's Your Opinion?

Should the government have the right to monitor online communications as they happen for security reasons? Is it sufficient to rely on a single court order covering tens of thousands of potential suspects without proving they may be a security threat? Or does the sheer scope of the Internet make it impractical to get specific court orders for each individual who might come under the monitoring?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (4 votes)


guitardogg's picture

Okay, I get that it is a tough job to protect our country from threats. But do we need a police state where the very freedoms they are trying to protect are compromised? How is this different from tapping everyone's phones? If they have a credible threat, shouldn't it be easy to get a warrant, and to it legally? Our privacy and freedoms are being eroded more and more everyday. Hopefully actions like this will keep the government from taking them too quickly!

matt_2058's picture

I agree with guitardogg completely. What's the difference in having authority to monitor anyone at any time for whatever reason? Can you imagine the misuse if it were so easy to jump in and monitor anyone? But then again, it's not misuse if it is permitted. Just unethical...and no accountability.

There are already adequate rules in place. Rules that allow monitoring to protect our country and communities. The same rules that also protect our citizens from unsubstantiated surveillance and harassment.

If our protections are going to be violated, then the agencies need to be productive and publish results. Why not use that enthusiasm and capability to track down wanted criminals, dead-beat dads(and moms), fraudsters, etc. within our country? Which city will be the first to to be outstanding warrant free?!

BikeMobile's picture

Governments have whatever rights we allow them to get away with, as we choose what speed to travel regardless of posted signage. Any government, religion, business, ... is a social animal whose only goals are survival (of the government...) consumption (feeding), and propagation. If you are not the fed, or propagating survivor, you are the food. This is just a currently obvious metastasizing of the government cancer. If we get too vocal about it, there will be another "crisis" thrown up to distract the public. Not much in any of the three branches have even addressed real threats or causes in my "recent" memory (50 years or so), only the approaches that can make headlines and deficits. Of course I may not be privileged to the Hollywood behind the scenes problems and solutions. My current favorite news quip (quoting usually is mis-quoting on the internet) "The government is suffering from deficit attention disorder...among other ills."

blueboxer2's picture

This U.S. government initiative is essentially the same scheme that the Harper government is trying to foist on us in Canada. My own reading is that in both countries while the wording differs in detail, there is a prima facie case that the legislation offends the local Bill/Charter of Rights.

I also consider this attack on our rights a manouvre by the forces of reaction in each country to shove us even further down the path of a totalitarian state and can only hope the respective Supreme Courts prove an adequately substantial bulwark.

Beyond that one can only contribute money and support to organizations like the ACLU, and similar groups funding court challenges. Bending the ear of one's local representative should also be effective, but if he's a conservative my experience is that consideration is unlikely.

hybridauth_Google_111273332135951939051's picture

... conservative or not if they represents you, TELL them HOW YOU WANT THEM TO VOTE but, you also have to be willing to tell them
(and mean it) that if they don't "THEY ARE GONE". It's a very basic and PROVEN concept. All you have to do is stand up next to someone.

matt_2058's picture

I also think the gov is in survival mode. Maybe it has something to do with the immediate and widespread dissemination of information. Especially information they/it used to be able to squash easily.

Anyways, all of the above is why I have not voted for an incumbent in 15 years. When it comes to issues, if you don't make an honest effort and can't get the ball rolling in your first term, you're not going to in subsequent terms. Every-day citizens are fired for not performing to standards, so why shouldn't we fire the elected reps?

guitardogg's picture

I agree that we should pressure our so called "representatives" in government. We need strict term limits! No more career politicians!