Skip to main content

Obama to meet with tech bosses after judge rules on NSA data-mining

By CNN Staff
updated 7:39 AM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
  • The meeting comes after tech leaders called for the government to change spying practices
  • The judge's limited ruling opens the door to possible further legal challenges
  • The NSA data-mining can continue, pending a likely appeal by the government
  • Classified leaks by Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the data-mining

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama will meet with more than a dozen tech company bosses Tuesday, one week after industry leaders asked the government to change its spying practices.

The White House meeting comes a day after a federal judge said the government's collection of domestic phone records is unconstitutional. Such practices were brought to light by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked the classified information.

Obama plans to sit down with Tim Cook of Apple and Eric Schmidt of Google, as well as executives from Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, Netflix , Etsy, Dropbox, Yahoo!, Zynga, Sherpa Global, Comcast, LinkedIn and AT&T, a White House official said.

But national security and "unauthorized intelligence disclosures" are only part of the agenda. The meeting will also include talks about how the tech sector can help the government avoid IT debacles like the website rollout.

Snowden's open letter offers to help Brazil investigate NSA surveillance

The judge's decision

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon's ruling came as the Obama administration completes a review of NSA surveillance in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.

Leon said the NSA's bulk collection of metadata -- phone records of the time and numbers called without any disclosure of content -- apparently violates privacy rights.

His preliminary ruling favored five plaintiffs challenging the practice, but Leon limited the decision only to their cases.

NSA phone surveillance unconstitutional?

"I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," said Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush. "Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment."

Leon's ruling said the "plaintiffs in this case have also shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits of a Fourth Amendment claim," adding "as such, they too have adequately demonstrated irreparable injury."

Judge: NSA domestic phone data-mining unconstitutional

But he put off enforcing his order barring the government from collecting the information, pending an appeal by the government.

Leon rejected the government's argument that a 1979 Maryland case provided precedent for the constitutionality of collecting phone metadata, noting that public use of telephones had increased dramatically in the past three decades.

Leon also noted that the government "does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature."

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a critic of the NSA data mining, called on Congress to pass legislation he proposed to "ensure the NSA focuses on terrorists and spies - and not innocent Americans."

A Justice Department spokesman said Monday that "we believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found," but said the ruling is being studied.

The avalanche of information

Explosive revelations earlier this year by Snowden triggered new debate about national security and privacy interests in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Snowden's revelations led to more public disclosure about the secretive legal process that sets in motion the government surveillance.

In a statement distributed by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the leaks, Snowden said he acted on the belief that the mass surveillance program would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that Americans deserved a judicial review.

"Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans' rights. It is the first of many," Snowden said in the statement. He is living in Russia under a grant of asylum to avoid prosecution over the leaks in the United States.

Greenwald said the judge's ruling vindicates what Snowden did.

"I think it's not only the right, but the duty of an American citizen in Edward Snowden's situation to come forward, at great risk to himself, and inform his fellow citizens about what it is their government is doing in the dark that is illegal," the journalist told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" Monday night.

NSA official: Snowden amnesty 'worth having a conversation about'

Secret court approval

The case before Leon involved approval for surveillance in April by a judge at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a secret body that handles individual requests for electronic surveillance for "foreign intelligence purposes."

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of the 1970s, the secret court was set up to grant certain types of government requests-- wiretapping, data analysis, and other monitoring of possible terrorists and spies operating in the United States.

The NSA has admitted it received secret court approval to collect vast amounts of metadata from telecom giant Verizon and leading Internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

The Patriot Act that Congress passed after the 9/11 attacks broadened the government's ability to conduct anti-terrorism surveillance in the United States and abroad, eventually including the metadata collection.In order to collect the information, the government has to demonstrate that it's "relevant" to an international terrorism investigation.

But the 1978 FISA law lays out exactly what the special court must decide: "A judge considering a petition to modify or set aside a nondisclosure order may grant such petition only if the judge finds that there is no reason to believe that disclosure may endanger the national security of the United States, interfere with a criminal, counterterrorism, or counterintelligence investigation, interfere with diplomatic relations, or endanger the life or physical safety of any person."

In defending the program, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that "15 separate judges of the FISA Court have held on 35 occasions that Section 215 (of the Patriot Act) authorizes the collection of telephony metadata in bulk in support of counterterrorism investigations."

Initially, telecommunications companies such as Verizon, were the targets of legal action against Patriot Act provisions. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to those private businesses.

Verizon Business Network Services turned over the metadata to the government.

An array of legal challenges

Last month, the Supreme Court refused to take up the issue when it denied a separate petition, which was filed by the Electronic Information Privacy Center. Prior lawsuits against the broader NSA program also have been unsuccessful.

Days after the Snowden disclosure in June, some Verizon customers filed legal challenges in the D.C. federal court.

The left-leaning American Civil LIberties Union also filed a separate, pending suit in New York federal court.

CNN's Bill Mears, Evan Perez, Jake Tapper and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Data mining & privacy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Sun June 23, 2013
He's a high-school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor.
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Traitor or patriot? Low-level systems analyst or highly trained spy?
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
What are the takeaways from Snowden's NBC interview? You might be surprised.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Months after accepting asylum in Russia, Snowden asked Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
A federal judge has refused the Obama administration's request to extend storage of classified NSA telephone surveillance data beyond the current five-year limit.
updated 8:44 PM EDT, Sun March 9, 2014
From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.
updated 8:39 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
In a rare public talk via the Web, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden urged a tech conference audience to help "fix" the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens.
updated 11:55 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The White House is "very disappointed" that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
updated 8:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Spies with surveillance agencies in the U.S. and U.K. infiltrated video games like "World of Warcraft" in a hunt for terrorists "hiding in plain sight" online.
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both held jobs that gave them access to some of their country's most secret and sensitive intelligence. They chose to share that material with the world and are now paying for it.
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The NSA's controversial intelligence-gathering programs have prevented 54 terrorist attacks around the world, including 13 in the United States.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
You've never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you. The National Security Agency's top-secret program essentially makes available everything you've ever done on the Internet.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
You may have never heard of Lavabit and Silent Circle. That's because they offered encrypted (secure) e-mail services, something most Americans have probably never thought about needing.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone."
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
President Barack Obama responds to outrage by European leaders over revelations of alleged U.S. spying.
updated 3:54 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Browse through a history of high-profile intelligence leaking cases.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Former President George W. Bush talks Snowden, AIDS, Mandela and his legacy.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Edward Snowden took a job with an NSA contractor in order to gather evidence about U.S. surveillance programs.
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
With reports of NSA snooping, many people have started wondering about their personl internet security.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Wed August 14, 2013
Click through our gallery to learn about other major leaks and what happened in the aftermath.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun June 9, 2013
What really goes on inside America's most secretive agency? CNN's Chris Lawrence reports.