Secret court declassifies opinion allowing mass data collection from phone companies

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has published a newly-declassified opinion that explains why it’s legal for the government to collect so-called “metadata” from phone carriers — a ruling that gives the green light to spy services to keep records of every phone call in the country.

According to the court, which meets in secret to oversee the spy agencies, the government is permitted to collect aggregated phone data because Americans have no Fourth Amendment right (which protects against unreasonable search and seizure) to records they share with phone company.

The court said phone records are subject to the “third party doctrine” — a rule that means people have no privacy rights in business records or other documents if they share them with another party, and that party shows them to someone else.

The records in question here relate to the time and place of every phone call in America but, as the court stressed in its opinions, the records do not reveal personal information like names or the content of the calls.

The government is obtaining the records in the first place as part of surveillance programs under the Patriot Act. Under those rules, spy agencies like the FBI and the NSA can vacuum up all phone companies’ metadata. In order to drill down into the data, however, they need to seek additional permissions.

Critic, however, argue that these legal safeguards are insufficient and that the government is taking more data than is justified. The secrecy of the court itself has also come under fire.

The release of the ruling comes against the backdrop of ongoing leaks about the federal government’s surveillance of the country’s phone and technology companies.

Here’s a copy of the ruling, portions of which remain blacked out:

FISA Declassified Opinion Re Phone Records

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