A mere 25 miles away from Salt Lake City, a National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility combs through more data than was probably imagined to exist in the tech world only a few years ago. Bluffdale, Utah, is the closest to Salt Lake that the NSA gets as an imposing physical presence, but since a U.S. Judge ruled in favor of the NSA earlier this month, the agency can get a lot closer, electronically. Given the ruling issued by Judge Jeffery White in Oakland, California, savvy attorneys in Utah know that this particular AT&T case might have reached the end of its line, but concerned citizens in the western U.S. might not let this matter rest.
The Mountain West is notorious for battling the government on all sorts of levels, with land use and rights and environmental protections that threaten civic growth being among the most recently highlighted in the media. Attorneys in Utah would probably wager that residents of the Beehive State would be the first to get behind a similar lawsuit to the one filed by AT&T customers in California that accused the NSA of violating their Fourth Amendment rights with their indiscriminate monitoring of Internet traffic.
The way in which “the government collects Internet communications, filters out purely domestic messages, and then searches the rest for potentially terrorist related information” without warrants and “an absence of individualized suspicion” isn’t just wrong, it’s illegal. But their claims met a dead end when the California judge ruled “that the plaintiffs did not present enough specific evidence about the program to establish their right to sue.” Probably because that specific evidence is really hard to come by. The thing is, government agencies like the NSA are exceptionally cagey about what kind of information they disclose about their methods.
The lawsuit was an example of the public’s latest attempt to reign in government spying, which the NSA might phrase more like “balancing national security priorities against privacy.” But attorneys in Utah like R. Tee Spjute are familiar enough with the way the NSA continues to block demands for transparency and rights to privacy to know that it was more likely “the possible disclosure of state secrets” that precluded “plaintiffs from moving forward on the claim” in the California lawsuit.
And while you would never find attorneys in Utah or California quoting pop culture TV shows in a courtroom, I think the Starship Enterprise’s Captain Jean Luc Picard’s words are relevant here, despite being spoken in the context of an episode of “Star Trek, Next Generation.” When he reflects glumly on the excuse of perceived injustices being “matters of internal security,” he recognizes it as “the age-old cry of the oppressor.”
Which is how the California plaintiffs see their most recent case, despite its having been ruled in favor of the defendant. They’re not giving up, and the lawyer for the case sees the ruling as incomplete in its decision “concerning telephone record collection and other mass surveillance.” There may yet be more courtroom confrontation here.