The U.S. National Security Agency was sued on Tuesday by an array of groups challenging one of its mass surveillance programs that they said violates Americans' privacy and threatens communications worldwide by dissidents living under oppressive regimes.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Maryland, where the spy agency is based, said the NSA is violating U.S. constitutional protections and the law by tapping into high-capacity cables, switches and routers that move Internet traffic through the United States.
The lawsuit is a new potential legal front for privacy advocates who have brought multiple challenges to U.S. spying programs since 2013, when documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the long reach of U.S. surveillance.
Other lawsuits have challenged the bulk collection of telephone metadata and are pending in U.S. appeals courts.
The litigation announced on Tuesday, however, takes on what is often called "upstream" collection because it happens along the so-called backbone of the Internet and away from individual users. The plaintiffs include the Wikimedia Foundation, the conservative Rutherford Institute and other organizations.
Bulk collection there violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, the lawsuit said.
An Obama administration official said: "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 U.S. 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.
"By tapping the backbone of the Internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy," Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, said in a statement.(http://bit.ly/1EPjvQD)
One potential roadblock the plaintiffs face 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.
Tretikov and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote in the New York Times' opinion pages that they were concerned about where data on their users ends up after it is collected in bulk by the NSA. Citing close intelligence ties between the United States 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 seven other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Amnesty International USA, PEN American Center, the Nation magazine, Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Global Fund for Women, and the Washington Office on Latin America.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the law firm Proskauer Rose are representing the plaintiffs.
The case is Wikimedia Foundation, et al, v. National Security Agency, et al, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, No. 15-662
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