On Thursday, a federal appeals court determined the National Security Agency (NSA) program involving the bulk collection of Americans' phone records is illegal and not permitted by the PATRIOT Act, the Washington Post reports.
This is a huge deal, both in terms of the issue at hand and in relation to timing.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, and it was signed into law by President George W. Bush. It was designed to aid the government in thwarting future terrorist attacks.
Since that time, the NSA used the PATRIOT Act, and specifically a statute known as Section 215, to justify the collection of the phone records of millions of Americans for counterterrorism purposes.
The NSA has been collecting metadata, meaning the content of phone calls is not collected, but the time, duration and date of calls are.
In June 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed this controversial program to the public, igniting a debate surrounding government surveillance and privacy.
At the center of this discussion lies an extremely complicated question: How much freedom must be sacrificed for the sake of security in a world where threats are becoming increasingly invisible?
Simply put, is giving up our privacy necessary or worth it as we confront terrorism and other dangers?
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, the court involved in Thursday's ruling, was asked to determine whether or not the NSA program is constitutional.
Instead of deliberating over this matter, it concluded the program violated Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. In other words, it's not legal and, as the court states, "exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized."
As POLITICO notes, this is the first time an appeals court issued a ruling regarding the legality of the NSA program.
Correspondingly, on June 1, Congress must decide to either reauthorize Section 215 or allow it to expire.
Thus, the issue is far from settled, particularly in terms of whether or not it violates the Constitution. But, this ruling marks one of the most important developments surrounding an exceptionally controversial and complex issue.
Citations: NSA program on phone records is illegal court says (Washington Post), Appeals court rules that NSAs phone metadata program is illegal (POLITICO ), ACLU vs Clapper (United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit )