NSA dish Munich Germany 2013
An NSA monitor area, near Munich, Germany. Reuters

The secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, on Friday ruled that the U.S. intelligence agencies can continue collecting data of millions of Americans’ Internet and telephone records, amid two differing rulings from two other federal courts on the legality and constitutionality of such surveillance programs.

According to a statement released by the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), FISC on Friday renewed the approval granted to the National Security Agency, or NSA, to collect metadata from phone companies. Such periodic renewal requests to FISC from the intelligence agencies are a procedural requirement under the surveillance program.

“Consistent with his prior declassification decisions and in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program, DNI Clapper has decided to declassify and disclose publicly that the government filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the court renewed that authority on January 3, 2014,” Shawn Turner, a spokesperson for DNI, said in a news release.

The release did not provide details of the period or to the extent of phone companies covered by the order, but a Reuters report citing a U.S. official said the approval was renewed for three months and it applied to the entire metadata collection program, and covered all phone companies from which the data was being collected under previous authorizations.

The NSA’s mass surveillance programs triggered a national debate and legal battles over citizens’ privacy rights, after Edward Snowden, a former defense contractor, leaked documents that revealed indiscriminate and extensive spying by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

The latest FISC order also comes after two federal judges last month issued conflicting judgments on the legality of the mass surveillance programs.

A federal judge in New York on Dec. 27 ruled that the NSA’s mass spying program was legal, and said the measure was an inevitable component of government’s efforts to combat terrorism, and the ruling contrasts with U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s Dec. 16, judgment that PRISM likely violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

Leon had granted a preliminary injunction against the collecting of phone records, describing the NSA’s widespread collection of telephone calls made in or to the U.S. as an “arbitrary invasion” of the lives of its own private citizens.

The Justice Department has filed an appeal asking the appeals court to overturn Leon’s judgment, while the American Civil Liberties Union, which lost the case at the New York court, said it will appeal against the judgment.

Meanwhile, DNI in the statement noted that several federal judges have upheld the legality of NSA’s surveillance program, but added that the intelligence agency is open for modifications to the program “that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits. “