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Privacy debate intensifies as court rules NSA data collection process illegal
A U.S. Appeals Court has ruled that the NSA's formerly secret collection of phone records in accordance with the Patriot Act is illegal. - photo by Chandra Johnson
A U.S. Appeals Court has ruled that the NSA's formerly secret collection of phone records is illegal.

The ruling found that the program, the details of which were leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden in 2013, was not protected under provisions of the Patriot Act, which is designed to allow data collection to undermine terrorist activity.

The ruling would seem to be a victory for proponents of data privacy last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that most Americans disapproved of government surveillance and the ACLU, which brought the case, called the ruling a victory on Twitter.

For those who consider the Snowden leak a blow to national security, the ruling is a complication.

"We also cannot afford to ignore another lesson of 9/11 and curtail intelligence gathering capabilities that have been legally and painstakingly established following those horrific attacks," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, wrote in a Fox News op-ed.

But the ruling is likely to spark serious debate in the coming weeks because it came with a caveat: The court stated clearly that Congress could approve such activity at any time.

That's significant, given the provision of the Patriot Act that, until now, protected the NSA's activity (called Section 215) is set to expire in June unless lawmakers pass an extension to the law.

Because the expiration date is so close, the court has not yet handed down an injunction to stop the data collection, but as Slate reported, it is now Congress' decision to either stop surveillance completely or permit it to continue lawfully.

"The ball, in other words, is once again in Congress' court," Slate's Mark Joseph Stern wrote. "But this time around, if the legislative branch doesn't act, the judiciary seems poised to step in and put the kibosh on the NSA's unlawful surveillance."
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