DEA sued over newly revealed phone spying program

The Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF) has launched a lawsuit against the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency(DEA) in federal district court in California, after the DEA was revealed to have been spying on Americans since 1992. The suit, filed last week on behalf of Human Rights Watch, claims the safety and privacy of its workers and activists abroad were violated when the program illegally collected records of the organization’s telephone calls to foreign countries.

The programs bulk collects phone metadata from calls made in the United States to targeted countries that the DEA considers hotbeds of drug smuggling. That metadata includes information about the calls source and destination numbers along with the time and duration of the call.

The program began in 1992 at the administrative direction of the DEA without Congressional oversight. Telephone service providers were required to hand over the data by subpoena on a monthly basis. Until now, the legality of the program has never been tested in court and relies on an opinion regarding its legality issued by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

One telecom provider, whose identity is unknown in the lawsuit, has simply ignored the DEA's demands for turning over data and faced no apparent consequence. The program is seen by some privacy experts to have been the model for the NSA's more recent bulk data collection programs in the post 9-11 era.

“The NSA had some access to the (DEA) database but not carte blanche,” according to EFF attorney Nate Cardozo. When queried further about other departments in the government having access to the DEA data he said that the “military got access through the NSA.”

Cardozo could not speculate to what extent or if that information was shared with foreign military personnel in the countries targeted by the program who are also known for human rights abuses. Human Right Watch, whose worker's are the suit's plaintiffs, regularly operate in such countries documenting the human rights abuses of foreign military.

“At Human Rights Watch we work with people who are sometimes in life or death situations, where speaking out can make them a target,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Whom we communicate with and when is often extraordinarily sensitive – and it’s information that we wouldn’t turn over to the government lightly.”

The DEA has reportedly backpedaled since the revelations of the programs existence claiming publicly that the program has been suspended. But when asked about that alleged suspension of the program Cardozo replied that the reports of suspension are based on a single “unnamed DEA spokesmen claiming this program has been terminated. If that's true we would like to see that under oath and on the record in front of a judge.”

Subpoenas for data collection under the program are allegedly issued to each phone service provider on a monthly basis. It is not clear if the proclamation of the programs suspension means that subpoenas have not been issued since the recent revelation of the programs existence.

But the suit goes a step further, seeking to declare the surveillance a violation of the group's constitutional rights, and to purge all records from the program.

"The DEA's program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret," said Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"We want a court to force the DEA to destroy the records it illegally collected and to declare -- once and for all -- that bulk collection of Americans' records is unconstitutional."

Date Originally Published: 
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
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