Wikipedia group sues NSA over surveillance claims

Wikimedia and rights groups file lawsuit alleging agency programme violates privacy

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wikimedia and other rights groups have filed a lawsuit against the agency challenging one of its mass surveillance programmes. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wikimedia and other rights groups have filed a lawsuit against the agency challenging one of its mass surveillance programmes. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

 

The US National Security Agency (NSA) is being sued by Wikimedia and other groups challenging one of its mass surveillance programmes, that they allege violates the privacy of Americans and makes individuals worldwide less likely to share sensitive information.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, where the agency is based, said the NSA is violating US constitutional protections and the law by tapping into the high-capacity cables, switches and routers that move internet traffic through the US.

The case is a new potential legal front for privacy advocates who have challenged US spying programmes several times since 2013, when documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the long reach of government surveillance.

Other lawsuits , challenging the bulk collection of telephone metadata, are currently pending in US appeals courts.

The litigation takes on what is often called “upstream” collection, because it happens along the so-called backbone of the internet and away from individual users.

Bulk collection in this area violates the constitution’s first amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the fourth amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs include the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the conservative Rutherford Institute, Amnesty International USA and the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers, among other groups.

The groups say in the lawsuit that upstream surveillance “reduces the likelihood” that clients, journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals will share sensitive information with them.

Individual harm

Legal standing, which requires the organisations to show individual, particular harm, is the most significant obstacle for the groups, said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.

Another potential roadblock for the groups is that the government could try to assert what is known as the state secrets privilege, saying that continuing with the lawsuit would expose classified information, said Carrie Cordero, director of national security studies at Georgetown University Law Center.

An Obama administration official said in relation to the lawsuit: “We’ve been very clear about what constitutes a valid target of electronic surveillance. The act of innocuously updating or reading an online article does not fall into that category.”

The US department of justice, which was named as a defendant along with the NSA, said it was reviewing the lawsuit. The NSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Concern over data

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote in the New York Times opinion pages that the group was concerned about where data on their users ends up after it is collected in bulk by the NSA.

Citing close intelligence ties between the US and Egypt, they said a user in Egypt would have reason to fear reprisal if she edited a page about the country’s political opposition.

The US Supreme Court in 2013 rejected another challenge to NSA surveillance of email and other communications, ruling that a similar coalition of plaintiffs did not prove that they had been spied upon, or would be.

The ruling, however, was made just three months before the first of Mr Snowden’s revelations. Documents made public by Mr Snowden support the right to sue, said Patrick Toomey, one of the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers working on the lawsuit.