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Judge issues last-minute ruling against the NSA phone surveillance program

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A federal judge has ordered the NSA to cease collecting phone records on the plaintiffs of an anti-surveillance suit, reaffirming an earlier ruling. Judge Richard Leon found that so-called bulk collection likely violates the Fourth Amendment, calling it "a sweeping and truly astounding program that targets millions of Americans arbitrarily and indiscriminately." It's a definitive legal victory for privacy advocates, albeit one that won't have much direct effect on the program.

Leon's order revisited Klayman v. Obama, a civil liberties case filed after Edward Snowden released evidence of mass phone surveillance. Leon ruled on the case in late 2013, saying that the program was probably unconstitutional. He issued a temporary injunction against collecting metadata on the case's plaintiffs, but he stayed it until the government could appeal the decision. The ruling, however, didn't hold. Like several similar lawsuits, Klayman couldn't conclusively say that the people involved were actually under surveillance, because the scope of the program remains unknown. Nearly two years after Leon's decision, DC appeals court overturned it and sent the case back.

"The loss of constitutional freedoms for even one day is significant harm."

Leon isn't arguing against that reasoning. Instead, he's looking at an amended version of the complaint, which adds plaintiffs who were using Verizon Business Network Services — a program Snowden unambiguously established is under surveillance. This doesn't change his interpretation of the program's legality, but it goes further to show that concrete harm — namely, citizens suffering an unreasonable government search — came of it. It also means that the injunction only applies to these two new plaintiffs, not the original subjects of the suit.

More pertinently, it won't apply for very long. The current surveillance program will cease operation on November 29th, when the NSA officially finishes reforming it under the USA Freedom Act. This limited lifespan was an issue in a previous case, where a court decided that the program was likely illegal but said any concrete action would need to wait until the new program started. Leon admits that Klayman was "perhaps the last chapter" in legal challenges against the surveillance program that Snowden revealed. But he expressed frustration with the long delays that it suffered, saying that "the loss of constitutional freedoms for even one day is significant harm."