The Relevance of Relevance: Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and the NSA Metadata Collection Program

April 1, 2014

In June 2013, a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked classified documents exposing a number of secret government programs. Among these programs was the “telephony metadata” collection program under which the government collects records from phone companies containing call record data for nearly every American. News of this program created considerable controversy and led to a wave of litigation contesting the validity of the program.

The legality of the metadata collection program has been challenged on both constitutional and statutory grounds. The program derives its authority from Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, codified as 50 U.S.C. § 1861. The statute requires that there be reasonable grounds to believe the data collected is “relevant to an authorized investigation.” The government deems all these records “relevant” based on the fact that they are used to find patterns and connections in preventing terrorist activity. Critics of the program, however, assert that billions of records cannot possibly be relevant when a negligible portion of those records are actually linked to terrorist activity. This Note examines the conflicting interpretations of “relevant,” and concludes that while the current state of the law permits bulk data collection, the power of the NSA to collect records on such a large scale must be reined in.

April 2014

No. 5