Civil rights groups have asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for the legal justification of the U.S. government's surveillance of Verizon's customer records.
Results of a national survey by Pew Research released Monday, however, suggest that most people in the U.S. are willing to sacrifice privacy if it will help the government investigate terrorism.
The order of the FISC court, published last week by the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., authorized the U.S. National Security Agency to collect so-called telephony metadata from customers of Verizon in the U.S. The order was later confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper.
The metadata includes communications routing information such as session-identifying information, trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call, according to the document. It does not, however, contain the content of a communication, or the name, address, and financial information of the customer. The requirement to turn in metadata applies to calls within the U.S., and calls between the U.S. and abroad.
The FISC was set up in 1978 by the U.S. Congress as a special court to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations.(
Separate reports have also alleged that the NSA has real-time access to content on the servers of Google, Facebook, and other Internet companies as part of another surveillance program. The companies have denied their participation.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday called for a public debate on the tradeoff between privacy and security.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School's Media Freedom and Information Clinic on Monday filed a motion before the FISC, requesting that it publish its opinions on the meaning, scope and constitutionality of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which they say forms the basis of the order on Verizon.
The section allows the director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain secret court orders from the FISC that compel third parties to produce "any tangible things" relevant to authorized foreign intelligence or terrorism investigations, according to the motion.
As the orders are accompanied by a "gag order" that prohibit recipients from revealing that they even received a demand for records, "Americans know very little about the authority the government has claimed under Section 215 and the extent of the records acquired by the government under these orders," Patrick C. Toomey, fellow of ACLU's national security project wrote in a blog post on Monday.
"The public is entitled to know the legal basis for such a program and the legal interpretation of Section 215 that supports the government's demand for a complete log of all our phone calls," Toomey wrote, describing the FISC opinions as a first step in a public discussion on the surveillance powers asserted by the government. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for public access to judicial proceedings and records but for some exclusions.
The disclosure of the order authorizing the collection of Verizon call records has already lead to court actions, as it is being seen by rights groups as evidence that the U.S. government is using a secret and broad interpretation of surveillance laws.
Larry Klayman, the founder of watchdog websites Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch and a former Department of Justice prosecutor, filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the Verizon order, alleging that the surveillance violates the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are among the defendants in the case.
Pew Research Center, however, reported Monday that 56 percent of a sample of 1,004 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in the continental U.S. said the NSA's tracking of telephone records of millions of Americans is "an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism." 41 percent said it was unacceptable.
The percentage of people who are willing to compromise personal privacy if it will help the federal government investigate terrorist threats is 62 percent, according to the survey by Pew Research and The Washington Post.