In the wake of last week’s revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency is secretly collecting phone record and internet data from millions of Americans, privacy advocates are launching lawsuits aimed at stopping or scaling down government surveillance.
On Wednesday, Larry Klayman, the founder of public watchdog group Judicial Watch,, and several other plaintiffs filed a suit in the District of Columbia federal court over the government’s PRISM program, a computer system designed to secretly collect from internet services data that could be used in foreign intelligence investigations.
The lawsuit lists as defendants the nine internet companies named last week in leaked PowerPoint slides: Facebook, Google, YouTube, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, AOL, Yahoo, and PalTalk. It also included President Barack Obama, the Justice Department, the NSA, Sprint, and AT&T among the defendants.
Klayman's complaint calls the government’s surveillance program “illegal and unconstitutional” for collecting personal data from the internet companies’ servers, allegedly including “emails, chat (video/voice), videos, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notification of target activity (i.e. logins, etc.), online social networking details, and other special requests.” Although it’s unclear by what mechanism government agents obtained the data, the internet companies apparently cooperated with them, although the companies would have been legally bound to secrecy.
“Such broad and intrusive PRISM collections directly violate the U.S. Constitution and also federal laws, including, but not limited to, the outrageous breach of privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of association and the due process rights of American citizens,” the complaint says.
In a separate lawsuit filed last week, Klayman took aim specifically at the government’s practice of collecting U.S. citizens’ phone call records, as revealed in a secret court order.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union also sued the government over the phone records. The organization is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, the phone service provider named in the court order.
The April 25 order had asked for the time, duration, and phone numbers (of both parties) for all calls made during a three-month period. “The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book—with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where,” said the ACLU in its complaint. “It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations.”
That level of surveillance could have “a chilling effect on whistleblowers” who try to contact the ACLU for assistance, the organization said. It argues the massive phone record program is not authorized by the Patriot Act and violates the First and Fourth Amendments.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling in February, dismissed a previous lawsuit challenging government surveillance of international calls and emails on the grounds that the plaintiffs could not prove they had been subject to the spying. That was despite the fact that all such surveillance activity is kept a state secret.
With the recent leaks and the government’s subsequent declassification of portions of its surveillance program, the plaintiffs in the new lawsuits may be standing on firmer ground.