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NSA to defend Internet collection in court

Digital rights advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is taking the National Security Agency (NSA) to court on Friday over the agency’s Internet data collection program.

EFF said it’s the first public court challenge of the NSA spying tool that collects Internet data from the major cables and nodes connecting computer networks around the world, known as “upstream” collection.

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The federal court in Oakland, Calif., will hear the case.

EFF will argue such indiscriminate collection and any resulting warrantless searches violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

“The eyes and ears of the government now sit on the Internet,” EFF attorneys argued in a motion. “The government is operating a digital dragnet — a technological surveillance system that makes it impossible for ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing to engage in a fully private online conversation.”

It’s a case six years in the making for EFF, which originally filed the suit in 2008 after a former AT&T technician revealed evidence that the company routed copies of its Internet traffic records to the NSA.

The efforts have gained momentum since former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about the upstream program.

The government has defended the program as legally justified under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendments of 2008.

That section delineates legal methods of electronic collection targeting “non-U.S. persons located outside the United States,” according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  

The NSA’s Internet surveillance has received less attention — and less criticism — than a separate program that collects Americans’ phone records.

An independent government review board, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, deemed the phone records program illegal but gave its seal of approval to the Internet data collection program.

Congress also tried — and ultimately failed — to move a bill that would have ended the phone records program but left the Internet surveillance in tact.

EFF has lambasted both programs as illegal.

On Friday, EFF will get its chance to argue the upstream program is, at its core, unconstitutional.

“In truth, no valid warrant could authorize the government’s admitted practices here,” EFF wrote in its motion. “The government’s targeting and minimization procedures are no substitute for the fundamental protections that the Constitution guarantees to all Americans.”