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NSA's Massive Phone Tracking Program Challenged By Unlikely Northwest Couple

Paula Wissel
Peter and Anna Smith

The National Security Agency’s bulk collection of cell phone data is at the heart of a case before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were heard Monday in Seattle.

The plaintiff is an unlikely candidate to take on the U.S. government. Anna Smith is a nurse and mom who lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Smith is clearly not used to the limelight. Outside the federal courthouse in Seattle, Smith politely referred any questions to her attorney, Peter Smith, who is also her husband.

Peter Smith normally works in real estate law, but says this issue spurred him and his wife to act.

“You know, as an American citizen, you assume that there are certain things you have that are private and the government can’t learn everything about you. And when we learned about this program, when Anna learned about this program, she just didn’t find it acceptable,” he said.

Anna Smith contends her privacy rights were violated because she is a Verizon wireless customer. It was former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who leaked information about the bulk data collection program and about wireless companies being compelled to share all customer's data with the NSA.

For its part, the U.S. government says citizens like Anna Smith do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy if the information has already been given to a third party like a cellphone company.

But Peter Smith asks if that means mean medical, hotel and other records could be accessed by the NSA as well.

“It’s a very slippery slope. If they can collect anything that we turn over to a third party in the 21st century, it’s going to be a very different world that we live in," Peter Smith said.

Ultimately this case, Smith v. Obama, will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.