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ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Vast Collection Of Phone Records

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its practice of collecting vast data about the phone calls made in the United States. The ACLU claims the government surveillance violates the Constitution's guarantee of free speech, association and privacy.

This comes, of course, in the wake of revelations by The Guardian and The Washington Post that a secret court granted the Obama administration access to call logs for all Verizon calls made within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries for a three-month period.

The ACLU, a Verizon customer, is representing itself in the lawsuit.

In a press release, the ACLU said:

"As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society's most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we're acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government's abuse of Section 215.

"The ACLU's complaint filed today explains that the dragnet surveillance the government is carrying out under Section 215 infringes upon the ACLU's First Amendment rights, including the twin liberties of free expression and free association. The nature of the ACLU's work—in areas like access to reproductive services, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, national security, and more—means that many of the people who call the ACLU wish to keep their contact with the organization confidential. Yet if the government is collecting a vast trove of ACLU phone records—and it has reportedly been doing so for as long as seven years — many people may reasonably think twice before communicating with us."

The New York Times reports that in the past, the government has persuaded courts to dismiss these kinds of lawsuits arguing that it has the potential to reveal sensitive secrets. The paper says this time it could different, partially because the "government has now declassified the existence of the program on domestic call record 'metadata.'"

The government has defended the legality of the program saying that Congress has been briefed about the data collection and that knowing all the details, it still reauthorized the so-called business records provision of the USA Patriot Act.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which does not make its rulings public, has decided that the government collection of these records is legal under the Patriot Act.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.