In re EPIC - NSA Telephone Records Surveillance
"It is simply not possible that every phone record in the possession of a telecommunications firm could be relevant to an authorized investigation. Such an interpretation of Section 1861 would render meaningless the qualifying phrases contained in the provision and eviscerate the purpose of the Act." - EPIC Mandamus Petition
- Privacy Board Supports End of NSA Call Record Program: The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has issued a report emphasizing the minimal value of the NSA's call details records program. The Board recommended the end of the program, which the NSA suspended last year after concerns about compliance with legal standards established in the US Freedom Act. According to the PLCOB report, the government spent $100 million on the program, yet opened only one non-duplicative investigation. EPIC recently joined 44 civil liberties organizations in backing the end of the NSA surveillance program. In 2013, EPIC filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, In re EPIC, challenging the lawfulness of the NSA's bulk collection of American's telephone records. (Feb. 27, 2020)
- Congress Extends Section 215 Surveillance Program: Congress has temporarily extended Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a controversial surveillance law that allows collection of the telephone records of Americans. EPIC had urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to end the NSA's phone record collection program. EPIC wrote "events of the past few years make clear that Section 215 should not be renewed." In 2013, following the Snowden disclosures, EPIC filed a petition with the Supreme Court, challenging the lawfulness of Section 215. Congress found the 215 program was ineffective and passed the USA Freedom Act to limit data collection. NSA has since acknowledged significant compliance problems. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed concerns about the surveillance program. The temporary renewal in the House spending bill extends the law until March 15, 2020. (Nov. 29, 2019) More top news »
The Verizon Order
On June 5, 2013, a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ("FISC") order allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") and the National Security Agency ("NSA") to obtain vast amounts of telephone call data of Verizon customers was made public. The order, issued April 25, 2013, does not link this data collection to any specific target or investigation, but instead grants sweeping authority compelling Verizon to produce to the NSA "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." As a result, the NSA collected the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers, including those who only make calls to other U.S. numbers. Senator Diane Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has confirmed that this FISC Order is part of an ongoing electronic communications surveillance program that has been reauthorized since 2007. EPIC is a Verizon customer, and has been for the entire period the FISC Order has been in effect. Because the FISC Order compels disclosure of "all call detail records," EPIC's telephone metadata are subject to the order and have been disclosed to the NSA.
The NSA's History of Domestic Electronic Surveillance
The NSA has coordinated signals intelligence activities since its inception in 1952. Despite its directive to collect and analyze foreign intelligence, the NSA has often engaged in domestic surveillance. In the mid 1970s, the Church Committee discovered that the NSA had routinely collected the private communications of U.S. persons from U.S. telegraph companies through 1975 under Operation SHAMROCK. The NSA also targeted the international communications of specific American citizens from the 1960s through 1973. More recently, the NSA collaborated with other intelligence organizations on a program known as "ECHELON," a data sharing agreement involving the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand for the purposes of intelligence interception. ECHELON allowed for the automatic pooling of all signals intelligence data. The NSA is currently building a $2 billion data center in Bluffdale, Utah that will encompass 1 million square feet, with 100,000 square feet reserved for servers.
"Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 to prevent the indiscriminate and invasive domestic surveillance of Americans by government intelligence agencies." - EPIC Mandamus Petition
Originally passed in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA") established a set of rules to govern collection of data from targets with foreign connections. While ordinary law enforcement surveillance was subject to the more stringent guidelines of the Wiretap Act (later amended by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act), FISA offers the government greater leeway when surveillance is used to collect "foreign intelligence." FISA initially covered only electronic eavesdropping, but was subsequently amended to include other types of surveillance as well.
The USA PATRIOT Act, Section 215
Passed in 2001, the USA-PATRIOT Act added several amendments to the FISA. Notably, section 215 of the Act, known as the "Business Records Provision," authorizes the collection of "any tangible things" when the government can show "reasonable grounds" that such a collection is "relevant to an authorized investigation" to obtain foreign intelligence or protect against international terrorism. Compared to the original standard in the FISA, which allowed for surveillance only if the government could show that the target was a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power, this provision greatly expanded the volume of communications accessible under FISA.
Section 215 also requires the Attorney General to enact minimization procedures to limit the dissemination and retention of data incidentally collected on United States persons that serves no foreign intelligence purpose. These procedures have not yet been made public.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
FISA established a special court called the FISC, composed of 11 federal district court judges designated by the Chief Justice. The FISC reviews the government's applications for authorization of foreign intelligence surveillance, including applications for surveillance of specific targets as well as applications for business records under section 215. All proceedings of the FISC are classified and closed to the public. The government's applications are made without any opposing party present at the court. The FISA and the Court rules dictate that only the holder of the business records may challenge an order before the FISC.
In reviewing an application for business records, a FISC judge must find that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation. In 2012, 212 applications for business records were made to the FISC. The FISC granted all of these applications.
Though the FISC's initial determination is non-adversarial and made only based on the statement of facts presented by the government, the recipient of a FISC order may challenge the order in accordance with rules published by the FISC. If a FISC judge finds that the order is unlawful or does not comply with other parts of section 215, the judge may modify or set aside the order. Any decision made by the FISC in review of an order may also be reviewed by the FISC court of review, should the government or the recipient of a FISC order wish to challenge the FISC's review of an order. Only the government and the recipient of a FISC order may petition for review in the FISC or the FISC court of review.
EPIC petitioned the Supreme Court to halt the disclosure of the telephone records of millions of Americans, arguing that the FISC did not have legal authority to compel Verizon to turn over all domestic telephone "metadata" to the NSA.
- "Whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court exceeded its narrow statutory authority to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance, under 50 U.S.C. 1861, when it ordered Verizon to disclose records to the National Security Agency for all telephone communications 'wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.'"
- "Whether Petitioner is entitled to relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1651(a) to vacate the order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or other relief as this Court deems appropriate."
EPIC's Mandamus Petition
EPIC sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court to vacate the Verizon Order. A writ of mandamus is a command by a higher court to a lower court or government official. Mandamus is appropriate when a lower court has exceeded its lawful authority. The United States Supreme Court has laid out three conditions that must be fulfilled before a writ of mandamus can be issued: (1) the party must have no other adequate means to attain the relief they deserve, (2) the party must satisfy the burden of showing that their right to issuance of the writ is clear and indisputable, and (3) the issuing court must be satisfied that the writ is appropriate under the circumstances.
"Mandamus relief is warranted because the FISC exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation." - EPIC Mandamus Petition
In this case, EPIC cannot gain relief from any other court other than the Supreme Court. Normally, when a court issues an unlawful order, the adversely affected parties can intervene or appeal to a higher court. However, the FISC and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review are the only courts with jurisdiction to hear petitions by the Government or recipients of the FISC Order. Neither party to the order represents EPIC's interests. As EPIC is not a recipient of the order, it cannot challenge it in the FISC. Other federal and state trial and appellate courts have no jurisdiction over the FISC, and therefore cannot grant relief.
The FISC order exceeded the scope of the FISC's jurisdiction under the FISA. The FISA requires that production orders be supported by "reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation. . ." However, we now know that the FISC issued an order requiring disclosure of records for all telephone communications "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." It is simply unreasonable to conclude that all telephone records for all Verizon customers in the United States could be relevant to an investigation. Such an interpretation would eliminate the FISA's core limiting principle and check on executive authority. A writ of mandamus is a proper judicial remedy to rectify the FISC's exceeding of its statutory authority.
"To define the scope of the records sought as 'everything' nullifies the relevance limitation in the statute. If law enforcement has 'everything,' there will always be some subset of 'everything' that is relevant to something. At that level of breadth, the relevance requirement becomes meaningless." - EPIC Mandamus Petition
The NSA surveillance has created extraordinary circumstances. The records acquired by the NSA under the FISC Order detail the daily activities, interactions, personal and business relationships, religious and political affiliations, and other intimate details of millions of Americans. Surveillance of all domestic telephone records exposes confidential and privileged associations. It chills free expression − political, associative, religious, or otherwise. And because the NSA sweeps up judicial and Congressional communications, it inappropriately concentrates power to the Executive Branch by allowing them to surveil the constitutionally mandated roles of the other branches of government.
The FISC Order also mandates that Verizon produce data about EPIC's confidential attorney-client relationships and other privileged information. At present, EPIC is in litigation with both the NSA and FBI, the two agencies responsible for tracking Americans' private communications under this order. EPIC also has ongoing FOIA lawsuits against other elements of the Intelligence Community, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency. Further, by ordering surveillance of all Verizon customers, the FISC permitted the NSA to gather the metadata of EPIC's conversations with consumers, advisors and advisees, donors, other privacy advocates, Members of Congress, agency officials, and journalists. This surveillance chills those communications and associations that are protected by the First Amendment.
"The records acquired by the NSA under this Order detail the daily activities, interactions, personal and business relationships, religious and political affiliations, and other intimate details of millions of Americans." - EPIC Mandamus Petition
For these reasons, EPIC asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus and prohibition to stop the order of the FISC court, or to grant a writ of certiorari to review the legality of its order. However, on November 18, 2013, the Supreme Court declined to hear EPIC's writ of mandamus without comment.
Privacy Law Scholars Argue That NSA Telephone Surveillance Is Unlawful
A group of leading professors of privacy and surveillance law have written a "friend of the court" brief supporting EPIC's mandamus petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The professors analyze in detail the NSA's claimed legal authority for the program, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and find that the bulk collection of telephone metadata is unlawful. "The government's defense of the Verizon Order reflects a significant rewriting of the law and permits the illegal construction of a comprehensive database of data about U.S. persons' communications." The brief focuses on the language of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Patriot Act to argue that the FISA Court did not have authority to order Verizon to produce all domestic call detail records. The professors explain that 1) the program does not meet the strict legal standard of the statute's text, 2) the program is contrary to the Executive Order governing intelligence operations, and 3) the domestic telephone surveillance program violates provisions of the Patriot Act that safeguard First Amendment-protected speech.
Former Church Committee Members and Law Professors Outline History of Domestic Surveillance and the Need for Oversight
Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senator Gary Hart, members of the 1970's Church Committee, joined by constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky and twenty-eight other law professors, have filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of EPIC's mandamus petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The amici describe how the NSA has a history of conducting broad and invasive domestic surveillance under the guise of foreign intelligence programs. "The illegal activities, abuse of authority, and violations of privacy uncovered by the [Church] Committee spurred Congress to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." The brief discusses two unlawful NSA programs: Project MINARET, which warrantlessly monitored communications of U.S. citizens on a government watchlist, and Operation SHAMROCK, which intercepted international telegraph traffic passing through the U.S. The FISA, the amici explain, was meant to stop these sorts of programs and prevent agencies from using foreign intelligence authorities as an excuse for domestic surveillance.
Federal Courts Scholars Argue That the Supreme Court Has Jurisdiction to Grant Mandamus Relief
Professors James E. Pfander and Steven I. Vladeck have filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of EPIC's mandamus petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The amici argue that the Supreme Court has the power to grant mandamus relief in this case because the writ of mandamus "would be in aid of the Court's appellate jurisdiction," and because "adequate relief for Petitioner's claims cannot be obtained in any other form or from any other court." The amici also argue that EPIC clearly has Article III standing to seek relief because its telephone records are subject to the Verizon order. The brief makes clear that review of the unlawful FISC order is properly before the Supreme Court, and that the Court has the power to grant the relief that EPIC seeks.
Cato Institute Argues That the Verizon Order Is Unconstitutional
The Cato Institute has filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of EPIC's mandamus petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cato argues that the Verizon order is not only unlawful under the FISA, it is unconstitutional. Cato argues that the Verizon order is a "general warrant," which the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent, and that the Court's recent decision in United States v. Jones shows that "EPIC has a legal and constitutional interest in data about its telephone calls." The brief makes clear that the bulk collection of domestic telephone records is an unlawful and unconstitutional interference with the property and statutory rights of EPIC and other Verizon customers.
Supreme Court Docket
- EPIC Mandamus Petition to the Supreme Court (July 8, 2013)
- EPIC Letter Notifying the Court of a Recently Released FISC Opinion (Oct. 7, 2013)
- Brief for the United States in Opposition (Oct. 11, 2013)
- EPIC Reply to Brief for the United States in Opposition (Oct. 28, 2013)
- Amici Curiae Briefs in Support of EPIC
- Brief of Amicus Curiae Professors of Information Policy and Surveillance Law in Support of Petitioner
- Brief of Amicus Curiae Former Members of the Church Committee and Law Professors in Support of Petitioners
- Brief of Amici Curiae Professors James E. Pfander and Stephen I. Vladeck in Support of Petitioner
- Brief of Amicus Curiae Cato Institute in Support of Petitioner
- Amended Memorandum Opinion and Primary Order, In re Application of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an Order Requiring Production of Tangible Things from [REDACTED], BR 13-109 (FISC Aug. 23, 2013) (Granting Order for Bulk Metadata Collection Under Section 215)
- Secondary Order, In re Application of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an Order Requiring the Production of Tangible Things from Verizon Business Network Services Inc. on Behalf of MCI Communication Services Inc. D/B/A Verizon Business Services, BR 13-80 (FISC Apr. 25, 2013) (Verizon Order)
- Primary Order, In re Application of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an Order Requiring the Production of Tangible Things from Verizon Business Network Services Inc. on Behalf of MCI Communication Services Inc. D/B/A Verizon Business Services, BR 13-80 (April 25, 2013)
- In re Production of Tangible Things from [REDACTED], BR 08-13 (FISC Dec. 12, 2008)
- White House, "Adminstration White Paper: Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata Under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act," Aug. 9, 2013
- Nat'l Sec. Agency, "The National Security Agency: Missions, Authorities, Oversight and Partnerships," Aug. 9, 2013
- President Barack Obama, discussing the NSA domestic surveillance programs at the White House, C-SPAN, Aug. 9, 2013
- Off. of the Dir. of Nat'l Intelligence, "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Renews Authority to Collect Telephony Metadata," July 19, 2013
- Robert Litt, Off. of Dir. of Nat'l Intelligence General Counsel, Remarks on "Privacy, Technology, and National Security" at the Brookings Institution, July 19, 2013
- General Keith Alexander, Director of NSA, speaking about surveillance at the Aspen Institute, July 18, 2013
- Raj De, NSA General Counsel, and others discuss "Counterterrorism, National Security, and the Rule of Law" at the Aspen Institute, July 18, 2013
- Department of Justice letter to Judge William Pauley, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, regarding ACLU v. Clapper, 13 Civ. 03994, July 18, 2013
- Department of Justice letter to Rep. James Sensenbrenner, House Judiciary Committee, July 16, 2013
- Dep't of Justice, Off. of Legislative Aff., Letter to Senators Diane Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, Senate Intelligence Committee, regarding Patriot Act Section 215, Feb. 2, 2011
- Dep't of Justice, Off. of Legislative Aff., Letter to Rep. Silvestre Reyes, House Intelligence Committee, regarding Patriot Act Section 215, Dec. 14, 2009
- David Kris, On the Bulk Collection of Tangible Things, 1 Lawfare Rsch. Paper Series 4 (2013)
- EPIC - Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)
- EPIC - USA PATRIOT Act
- EPIC - NSA: Verizon Phone Record Monitoring
- EPIC - Petition to the NSA under the Administrative Procedures Act
- EPIC - Wiretapping
- EPIC - Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
- Justices Reject Challenge to NSA Spying, New York Times (Nov. 18, 2013).
- Challenge to NSA Spying Pressed, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 28, 2013).
- Solicitor General Responds to an EPIC Mandamus Effort, Lawfare (Oct. 23, 2013).
- The Government's Initial Supreme Court Filing on the Section 215 "Telephony Records Program", Marty Lederamn, Just Security (Oct. 14, 2013)
- DOJ: If We Can Track One American, We Can Track All Americans, ArsTechnica, Oct. 12, 2013
- My Cato Brief in Support of The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Challenge to NSA Data Seizures, Volokh Conspiracy, Aug. 13, 2013
- In re: Electronic Privacy Information Center, Cato Institute, Aug. 13, 2013
- The Lies Aren't What Makes Obama's NSA Stance So Awful, The New Republic, Aug. 12, 2013
- NSA Surveillance Needs More Than Windowdressing Reform, HuffPo (Aug. 10, 2013)
- Opinion: How secrecy erodes democracy, Politico - Special by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, July 22, 2013
- Opinion: Supreme Court must protect our privacy from the government, CNN - Special by Marc Rotenberg, July 17, 2013
- The Petition for Immediate Supreme Court Review of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Order Raises Thorny Procedural Issues, Justia (July 15, 2013)
- Why the Snowden Leak(s) Should Result in a Supreme Court Review of the FISA Court’s Verizon Order, Justia (July 12, 2013)
- Fed Surveillance More Widespread Than You Think, CBN News (July 11, 2013)
- EPIC asks court to review NSA surveillance, Associated Press (July 11, 2013)
- Editorial: Privacy and the FISA court, L.A. Times (July 10, 2013)
- Experts Debate Legal Questions Surrounding U.S. Surveillance Efforts, Bloomberg BNA (July 10, 2013)
- The Supreme Court's Power to Hear In re EPIC, Lawfare (July 10, 2013)
- A Close Look at The Unusual EPIC Writ That Bypasses Lower Courts, FindLaw (Jul. 10, 2013)
- Supreme Court asked to stop NSA telephone surveillance, CNN, July 9, 2013
- Could the Supreme Court stop the NSA?, Wash. Post (July 9, 2013)
- Discussion of the NSA surveillance program on The Charlie Rose Show, NBC (July 8, 2013)
- Editorial: The Laws You Can't See, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2013)
- Privacy Group Petitions Supreme Court to Stop NSA Phone Surveillance, Slate (July 8, 2013)
- Privacy group challenges NSA phone surveillance in Supreme Court petition, The Verge (July 8, 2013)
- An EPIC Effort to Combat the Dragnet, EmptyWheel (July 8, 2013)
- Privacy Group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) To File Emergency Petition Against NSA With United States Supreme Court, Int'l Bus. Times (July 8, 2013)
- Supreme Court asked to stop NSA telephone surveillance, CNN (July 8, 2013)
- US privacy group challenging NSA and FBI collection of phone records, The Guardian (July 8, 2013)
- Privacy Group Asks Supreme Court to Halt NSA Phone Spying, Wired (July 8, 2013)
- EPIC Files Petition in SCOTUS Regarding FISC Section 215 Order, Lawfare (July 8, 2013)
- Supreme Court asked to halt NSA phone surveillance, Ars Technica (July 8, 2013)
- EPIC wants to sue NSA at the Supreme Court, Boing Boing (July 8, 2013)
- Challenge to global phone taps, SCOTUSblog (July 8, 2013)
- EPIC to sue over NSA surveillance, USA Today (July 8, 2013)
- EPIC to ask Supreme Court to halt NSA phone spying, The Hill (July 8, 2013).
- Privacy Group to Ask Supreme Court to Stop N.S.A.’s Phone Spying Program, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2013).
- Secret Court's Redefinition of 'Relevant' Empowered Vast NSA Data-Gathering, Wall St. J. (July 7, 2013).
- In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A., N.Y. Times (July 6, 2013)
- U.S. Confirms That It Gathers Online Data Overseas, N.Y. Times (June 6, 2013)
- NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily, The Guardian (June 5, 2013)
Share this page:
Subscribe to the EPIC Alert
The EPIC Alert is a biweekly newsletter highlighting emerging privacy issues.