Experts say the settlement serves as a small win for plaintiffs, and a bigger one for plaintiffs.
Experts say the settlement serves as a small win for plaintiffs, and a bigger one for plaintiffs.

Asking that a judge rule the National Security Agency (NSA) is in violation for copying and searching the data it collects, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explained to a federal court just how the agency hooks into the Internet backbone to conduct mass surveillance.

In a press release, EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn contended that the judge not only has enough to rule on the constitutionality of the agency's initial mass seizure of communications but on “the subsequent searching of the content of Internet communications” in answer to a partial summary judgment motion filed in a California federal court in the ongoing Jewel v. NSA lawsuit.

"By installing fiber-optic splitters on the Internet backbone, and then searching through tens of millions of Internet communications it collects, the NSA is conducting suspicionless and indiscriminate mass surveillance that is like the abusive 'general warrants' that led the nation's founders to enact the Fourth Amendment," Cohn said.

Providing a colorful graphic to illustrate how the NSA's surveillance apparatus works, the EFF showed how the NSA “sits” on the Internet backbone “at key junctures,” thereby operating, the motion before the court said, “a digital dragnet…that makes it impossible for ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing to engage in a fully private online conversation, to privately read online, or to privately access any online service.”

Jewel v. NSA, a class-action suit brought against the agency in 2008 by AT&T customers in the San Francisco area, is seen as a potentially pivotal case in curbing NSA spying and establishing Fourth Amendment boundaries around internet and phone communications.

NSA spying has been roundly criticized though the internet has created a gray area for some courts and lawmakers. And earlier this month, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), which has criticized NSA's collection of call records in its surveillance program, stunned critics by saying that spying on email, Skype and other communications is fine.