WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US appeals court ruled Thursday that the National Security Agency's massive collection of phone records of Americans is illegal because it exceeds the scope of what Congress authorized.
The laws used as a basis for the bulk data collection "have never been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here," said the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a 97-page opinion.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the
NSA and FBI, following disclosures about the vast surveillance programs in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The "metadata" collected from millions of phone calls includes the numbers called, times and other information but not the content of conversations.
Still, civil liberties advocates argue the program is a massive intrusion on privacy while providing only minimal help in the anti-terrorism effort.
The court said metadata can reveal considerable personal information such as whether a person is a victim of a crime, or "civil, political, or religious affiliations" and "whether and when he or she is involved in intimate relationships."
The New York appellate court stopped short of ruling on the constitutional issues of the bulk collection of phone metadata, but said the government went far beyond what Congress intended in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a law aimed at allowing authorities to thwart terrorism.
"There is no evidence that Congress intended for those statutes to authorize the bulk collection of every American's toll billing or educational records and to aggregate them into a database," the appellate panel said in the opinion.
"The interpretation that the government asks us to adopt defies any limiting principle. If the government is correct, it could use (Section) 215 to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector, including metadata associated with financial records, medical records, and electronic communications (including email and social media information) relating to all Americans."
The law has been used by the NSA to locate people linked to potential terrorist attacks outside the United States and by the FBI in domestic surveillance.