Representing a large group of top computer science experts and professors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today submitted a brief to a federal appeals court supporting the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit over the NSA’s mass call records collection program. At the core of the brief is the argument that metadata matters.
Intelligence officials have often downplayed privacy concerns over the NSA’s interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act by stating that the agency does not collect the “content” of calls, but only the metadata—who a person called, when, how long the conversation lasted and other information. EFF’s brief begins with the line “It is not just metadata,” and goes on to explain how metadata collected on a massive scale can often reveal more personal information about an individual than content. The brief outlines how metadata can show patterns of behavior, political and religious affiliations, and other personal details, especially when combined with other data sources.
“The metadata the government collects isn’t just a list of numbers dialed and times—it’s a window into the lives of millions of Americans,” EFF Staff Attorney Mark Rumold said. “The law should provide the highest level of protection for this kind of information. The technology experts who signed the brief provide a valuable perspective for the court to consider.”
The ACLU filed its lawsuit against the Director of National Intelligence, NSA, Department of Defense, Department of Justice and FBI last year after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed a secret legal order allowing for the indiscriminate capture of call metadata from Verizon Business Services.
EFF represents 17 professors who signed onto the brief, including: Profs. Harold Abelson and Ron Rivest of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Prof. Andrew Appel, chair of Princeton University’s computer science department; Prof. Steven Bellovin of Columbia University’s computer science department; and Matthew Blaze, an associate professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer and Information Science Department. Other experts signed on to the brief come from John Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, Rice University and Purdue.
“Metadata equals surveillance,” said security expert and EFF board member Bruce Schneier, another signer of the brief. “It’s who we talk to, what we read, and where we go. When the president says ‘don’t worry, it’s only metadata,’ what he’s really saying is that you’re all under surveillance.”
While EFF is acting as amicus in this case, it also has two ongoing lawsuits of its own that challenge NSA surveillance. In First Unitarian v. NSA, EFF represents 22 groups whose First Amendment rights to association are violated by the NSA program. Jewel v. NSA is a case on behalf of AT&T customers who were subject to the unconstitutional NSA spying.
For the text of the amicus brief: