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ACLU LAWSUIT SEEKS TO HALT NSA'S MASSIVE SPYING ON CITIZENS

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EDITORIAL

Next time you go online, keep in mind that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has recently filed a major new lawsuit against the National Security Agency’s mass interception and searching of Americans’ Internet communications, including emails, web-browsing content, and search-engine queries.

At issue is NSA’s “upstream” surveillance, which involves NSA’s tapping into the internet backbone inside the United States—the physical infrastructure that carries Americans’ online communications with each other and with the rest of the world.

NSA is able to spy on you because of a law called the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which is supposed to allow the agency to target emails and phone calls of foreigners abroad.

While surveilling, NSA copies and combs through vast amounts of Internet traffic, which it intercepts inside the United States with help from major telecommunications companies. It searches traffic for keywords called “selectors” that are associated with its targets.

Surveillance includes NSA’s warrantless review of emails and Internet activities of millions of ordinary Americans—like you.

“This kind of dragnet surveillance constitutes a massive invasion of privacy, and it undermines the freedoms of expression and inquiry as well,” said ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey. “Ordinary Americans shouldn’t have to worry that the government is looking over their shoulders whenever they use the Internet.”

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland where NSA is headquartered, argues that NSA is violating the plaintiffs’ privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment and infringing on their First Amendment rights. The complaint also argues that upstream surveillance exceeds the authority granted by Congress under the FISA Amendments Act.

“By tapping the backbone of the Internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” said Lila Tretikov, director of Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, one of the most visited websites in the world. “Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”

The plaintiffs include human rights, legal, media, and information organizations whose work requires them to engage in sensitive communications with people outside the United States, such as colleagues, clients, journalists, and victims of human rights abuses. The lawsuit argues that upstream surveillance interferes with the groups’ abilities to do their jobs by violating the confidentiality of their communications and by making it more difficult to obtain crucial information from contacts and sources who communicate with them, often at significant personal risk.

The lawsuit is in some ways a successor to a previous ACLU lawsuit challenging NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, Clapper v. Amnesty. The Supreme Court dismissed that case in February 2013 in a 5-4 vote on grounds that plaintiffs could not prove then that NSA was spying on them.

Famous whistleblower Edward Snowden has said that ruling contributed to his decision to expose certain aspects of NSA’s surveillance activities a few months later.

Among Snowden’s disclosures were documents relating to upstream surveillance, since confirmed by the government. Unlike the surveillance considered by the Supreme Court in Clapper, upstream surveillance is not limited to the communications of NSA targets. Instead, as we have since learned, NSA is searching the content of nearly all text-based Internet traffic entering or leaving the country—as well as many ordinary citizen communications—looking for thousands of keywords such as email addresses or phone numbers.

One NSA document revealed by Snowden included a slide that named Wikipedia, among other major websites, as a good surveillance target for monitoring what people do on the Internet.

The new case is Wikimedia v. NSA.

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