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19 organisations sue US Govt over NSA surveillance program

July 17, 2013 08:40 IST

Nineteen US organisations have filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency, claiming that its secretive internet and telephone surveillance program violates the constitution.

Represented by Electronic Frontier Foundation, these organisations include Unitarian church groups, gun ownership advocates, and a broad coalition of membership and political advocacy organisations.

This is the first lawsuit filed against NSA after Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, leaked to the media details of the secret American program on tapping into the phone details of American nationals and intrusion into private emails of foreign nationals.

In the lawsuit filed, the plaintiffs have accused the US Government of violating their right of association by illegally collecting their call records.

"The First Amendment protects the freedom to associate and express political views as a group, but the NSA's mass, untargeted collection of Americans' phone records violates that right by giving the government a dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn.

He said that illegally obtaining such information -- especially in a massive, untargeted way over a long period of time -- violates the Constitution.

According to an EFF press release, the thrust area of the suit is the bulk telephone records collection program that was confirmed by publication of an order by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The order demands wholesale collection of every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other "identifying information" for every phone and call for all customers of Verizon for a period of three months.

The Director of National Intelligence and government officials further confirmed that this formerly secret document was legitimate and just one of series of orders issued on a rolling basis since at least 2006, it said.

"People who hold controversial views -- whether it's about gun ownership policies, drug legalisation, or immigration - often must express views as a group in order to act and advocate effectively," said Cohn.

"But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part. That's why the Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that membership lists of groups have strong First Amendment protection.

Telephone records, especially complete records collected over many years, are even more invasive than membership lists, since they show casual or repeated inquiries as well as full membership," he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the US Department of Justice. 

Lalit K Jha in Washington
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