The National Security Agency (NSA) phone data collection is illegal, a US appeals court has ruled.
Overturning a 2013 ruling, the judges did not, however, halt the program but urged Congress to take action.
The NSA’s spying was leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, who has since fled to Russia.
The NSA has collected data about numbers called and times, but not the content of conversations. It also allegedly spied on European firms.
Among individuals targeted was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The latest verdict, by The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, came after New York District Judge William Pauley had dismissed a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which argued that the way the NSA tracked million of calls contravened the US constitution.
The 97-page ruling says that “a provision of the USA Patriot Act permitting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect business records deemed relevant to a counterterrorism investigation cannot be legitimately interpreted to permit the systematic bulk collection of domestic calling records”.
However, the appeals court stopped short of ruling on the constitutionality of the program, launched after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.
Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013 caused an international outcry, despite US administrations insisting the program has been fully authorized.
The measures – repeatedly approved in secret by a national security court since 2006 – are set to expire on June 1st.
Leaders of the lower US House of Representatives would prefer to pass a bill to end the government’s bulk collection of phone records and replace it with legislation that supporters say protects civil liberties. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he wants to extend the Patriot Act and retain the bulk collection program.
The White House supports “an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data”, said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
ACLU’s deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said: “The appeals court’s careful ruling should end any debate about whether the NSA’s phone-records program is lawful.”
President Barack Obama is planning to ask Congress to end bulk collection of US phone records by the National Security Agency (NSA).
NSA senior officials told the New York Times the agency would “end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits”.
Phone records would instead remain with telecoms companies, only to be accessed by government when needed.
It follows widespread anger at home and abroad after leaks revealed the full extent of US surveillance operations.
The documents – leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – revealed that the US collects massive amounts of electronic data from communications of private individuals around the world, and has spied on foreign leaders.
In a speech in January, Barack Obama said it was necessary for the US to continue collecting large amounts of data, but that civil liberties must be respected.
Barack Obama is planning to ask Congress to end bulk collection of US phone records by the NSA
He said the current system, in which the NSA collects the details of the times, numbers and durations of phone calls, known as metadata, would come to an end.
According to the New York Times report, Barack Obama told the US justice department and intelligence officials to come up with a plan by March 28.
Under the new proposal, officials say surveillance “would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received”.
The phone companies would not be required to hold on to the data for longer than they normally would, the New York Times says.
The NSA currently holds information for five years, whereas telecoms companies are required by federal regulation to retain customer records for 18 months.
The new proposal “would retain a judicial role in determining whether the standard of suspicion was met for a particular phone number before the NSA could obtain associated records”, the newspaper adds.
The Obama administration plans to renew the current NSA program for at least another 90 days until Congress passes the new legislation.
New legislation has also been developed separately by leaders of the House intelligence committee that would allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval, the New York Times reports.
The New York Times report does not provide information on possible changes to the NSA’s surveillance of phone records from other countries.
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