A New York federal judge ruled that the United States government's phone gathering system is constitutional and a necessary measure to combat possible terrorist attacks against the country. The judge further ruled that Congress was within its rights to establish the system and that it does not violate any citizen's constitutional rights.
Notably, this New York decision is contrary to the rulings of a Washington D.C. judge who held earlier in December that the program is likely unconstitutional. Essentially, one judge found that the NSA program is successful in thwarting potential terrorist attacks before they come to fruition; while the other judge ruled that he was not convinced that the program was producing any results at all. Given the contrary rulings and expected appeals in both cases, the issue will likely find its way to the United States Supreme Court at some point.
The New York federal court judge based his decision on several points, including reliance on a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that individual telephone consumers do not have privacy rights in the data that the company retains regarding their use of service.
He also ruled that Congress has complete discretion to grant power to the government to conduct secret surveillance; and that there is violation of individual privacy rights in the program developed by the NSA. In so holding, he concluded that the telephone data collected by the NSA does not belong to the individual consumers, but to the telephone companies themselves.
Obviously, there is still tremendous debate about the constitutional and privacy issues surrounding the NSA data gathering program. What is clear, however, is that there is no definitive legal authority on whether the program is constitutional or not. Until the issue reaches the United States Supreme Judicial Court, each jurisdiction will be deciding the issues inconsistently.