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Appeals court finds NSA's bulk phone data collection was unlawful

Edward Snowden, who revealed the program in 2013, says he feels vindicated.

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Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
2 min read
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Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA's mass surveillance activities, back in 2013.

Screenshot by CNET

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the US National Security Agency's bulk collection of citizens' phone records was against the law. The program, now ended, collected records from phone carriers about who called whom. The massive collection went beyond the scope of what Congress allowed under a foundational surveillance law, the panel of judges ruled, adding that the program may have violated the US Constitution.

The collection program was first revealed to the public in 2013 by journalists who received a document leak from  Edward Snowden , a former NSA contractor. Snowden also revealed several other programs in which the NSA and agencies in cooperating countries tapped into the backbone of the internet in the name of foreign surveillance. 

The NSA news outraged privacy advocates and US citizens whose data was caught up in the dragnet. It also prompted US tech companies to distance themselves from government spy agencies in an effort to reassure customers that their data was secure.

"I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the  NSA 's activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them," Snowden tweeted on Wednesday. "And yet that day has arrived."

Congress ended the bulk collection program in 2015 with the approval of the USA Freedom Act, requiring the NSA to stop the collection later that year.

Nonetheless, ACLU senior staff attorney Patrick Toomey called Wednesday's ruling a victory for privacy rights. "The decision also recognizes that when the government seeks to prosecute a person, it must give notice of the secret surveillance it used to gather its evidence," Toomey said. "This protection is a vital one given the proliferation of novel spying tools the government uses today."

The court's ruling, written by Judge Marsha Berzon, held that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, didn't permit bulk collection of phone users' call records, as some had claimed. "The metadata collection exceeded the scope of Congress's authorization," she wrote.

The NSA declined to comment.