Nineteen organizations, including a church and gun ownership and marijuana legalization groups, have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. National Security Agency for a surveillance program that targets U.S. residents' phone records.
The groups accuse the NSA, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of violating their members' First Amendment rights of association by illegally collecting their telephone call records.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, include the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, Free Press, the Free Software Foundation, Greenpeace, the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws' California Chapter, Public Knowledge, and TechFreedom.
The groups object to the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records, disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in early June. The collection of all Verizon phone records, including records of calls made, the location of the phone, the time of the call and the duration of the call, violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by giving "the government a dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing the plaintiffs.
"When the government gets access to the phone records of political and activist organizations and their members, it knows who is talking to whom, when and for how long and how often," Cohn said during a press conference. "This so-called metadata, especially when collected in bulk and aggregated, allows the government to learn and track the associations of these organizations and their members."
Courts have recognized that government access to membership lists creates a "chilling effect" on people participating in those groups, Cohn added. "People are simply less likely to associate with organizations when they know the government is watching," she said. "This is especially true for associations advocating for potentially controversial changes in law or policy."
The collection program also violates the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, giving U.S. resident protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fifth Amendment, giving residents the right of due process, the lawsuit alleged.
The phone records collection program is "vast," and include records for AT&T and Sprint Nextel, EFF's lawyers alleged in the complaint.
The plaintiffs asked the court to shut down the telephone records program and order the agencies destroy records they have collected.
A spokesman for the U.S. Office of Director of National Intelligence didn't immediately return an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The Unitarian Church in Los Angeles joined the lawsuit because it has a long history in social justice issues, said the Rev. Rick Hoyt, a pastor there. The church opposed efforts in the 1950s to blacklist writers and actors with alleged ties to communism, he noted.
"The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues," he said. The church doesn't want its members tracked because of the church's positions on those issues, he added.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]