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Judge Slams NSA's Verizon Records Dragnet as 'Unconstitutional'

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A federal judge has sided with the plaintiffs against the Obama administration in a suit claiming, in part, that the National Security Agency's broad collection of phone records from Verizon Communications (VZ) and others is unconstitutional, according to court documents.

Describing the program as employing "almost-Orwellian technology," U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon said the mass collection of data probably violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting unlawful search and seizure. He drew a sharp distinction between the current NSA program and the programs under consideration during important legal precedents. The most notable of those, Smith v. Maryland of 1979, involved the occasional handing over of phone numbers at the request of law enforcement. 

"The question is this case can be more properly styled as follows: When do present-day circumstances . . . become so thoroughly unlike those considered by the Supreme Court thirty-four years ago that a precedent like Smith does not apply? The answer, unfortunately for the Government, is now."

The Smith case involved a hand-written register at the phone company which, at the request of law enforcement, was used to record numbers dialed from certain phones. By comparison, the NSA program may have included the collection of millions of phone records from individuals suspected of no crime.

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"The notion that the Government could collect similar data on hundreds of millions of people and retain that for a five-year period, updating it with new data every day in perpetuity, was at best, in 1979, the stuff of science fiction," Judge Leon wrote.

In ruling that the NSA program was likely unconstitutional, the judge also noted the effect changing technology has had on the way people interact with their phones.

The revelations about the NSA program came about as a direct result of leaks by Edward Snowden beginning in June to reporters at specific news outlets, including The Guardian and The New York Times.

Quoted by The Guardian through journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden said, "Today, a secret program authorised by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans' rights. It is the first of many." Greenwald is a key contact for Snowden and first published the leaked information in articles for The Guardian.

The complainants sued for the removal of their names and associated data from the NSA's database. The judge emphasized that the government's argument for not granting the injunction was insufficient. Due to the national security interests involved in the government's data collection programs, the judge issued a stay of his ruling pending appeal.

--Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York and Asbury Park

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