The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass interception and searching of Americans’ international communications. At issue is the NSA's “upstream” surveillance, through which the U.S. government monitors almost all international – and many domestic – text-based communications. The ACLU’s lawsuit, filed in March 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, is brought on behalf of nearly a dozen educational, legal, human rights, and media organizations that collectively engage in hundreds of billions of sensitive Internet communications and have been harmed by NSA surveillance. The district court dismissed the case in October 2015, concluding that the plaintiffs lacked “standing” to sue because they could not show with sufficient certainty that their communications have been intercepted. We appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which in May 2017 unanimously reversed a part lower court’s dismissal, ruling that Wikimedia does have standing to proceed.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Wikimedia Foundation, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, PEN American Center, Global Fund for Women, The Nation Magazine, The Rutherford Institute, and The Washington Office on Latin America. These plaintiffs’ sensitive communications have been copied, searched, and likely retained by the NSA. Upstream surveillance hinders the plaintiffs’ ability to ensure the basic confidentiality of their communications with crucial contacts abroad – among them journalists, colleagues, clients, victims of human rights abuses, and the tens of millions of people who read and edit Wikipedia pages.
Upstream surveillance, which the government claims is authorized by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (“FAA”), is designed to ensnare all of Americans’ international communications, including emails, web-browsing content, and search engine queries. It is facilitated by devices installed, with the help of companies like Verizon and AT&T, directly on the internet “backbone” – the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers across which Internet traffic travels.
The NSA intercepts and copies private communications in bulk while they are in transit, and then searches their contents using tens of thousands of keywords associated with NSA targets. These targets, chosen by intelligence analysts, are never approved by any court, and the limitations that do exist are weak and riddled with exceptions. Under the FAA, the NSA may target any foreigner outside the United States believed likely to communicate “foreign intelligence information” – a pool of potential targets so broad that it encompasses journalists, academic researchers, corporations, aid workers, business persons, and others who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Through its general, indiscriminate searches and seizures of the plaintiffs’ communications, upstream surveillance invades their Fourth Amendment right to privacy, infringes on their First Amendment rights to free expression and association, and exceeds the statutory limits of the FAA itself. The nature of plaintiffs' work and the law’s permissive guidelines for targeting make it likely that the NSA is also retaining and reading their communications, from email exchanges between Amnesty staff and activists, to Wikipedia browsing by readers abroad.
The ACLU litigated an earlier challenge to surveillance conducted under the FAA – Clapper v. Amnesty – which was filed less than an hour after President Bush signed the FAA into law in 2008. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court dismissed the case in February 2013 on the grounds that the plaintiffs could not prove they had been spied on. Edward Snowden has said that the ruling contributed to his decision to expose the full scope of NSA surveillance a few months later. Among his disclosures was upstream surveillance, the existence of which was later confirmed by the government.
Our clients advocate for human and civil rights, unimpeded access to knowledge, and a free press. Their work is essential to a functioning democracy. When their sensitive and privileged communications are monitored by the U.S. government, they cannot work freely and their effectiveness is curtailed – to the detriment of Americans and others around the world.
Follow The Case
Appeals Court (4th Cir.)
- 06/21/2016Amicus Briefs
District Court (D. Md.)
- 09/03/2015Amicus Briefs in Support of Plaintiffs