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A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the National Security Agency's major phone data collection program is illegal.

"We find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized," a panel of judges for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.

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The program, revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties groups. Most judges who have reviewed the program upheld it.

The law that the NSA relies on to obtain the data, a part of the Patriot Act, is set to expire on June 1. Some lawmakers have backed legislation that would substantial curtail the program, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to allow the law to continue in its current form. The court ruling could complicate the debate in Congress.

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The program involves the bulk collection of data about phones calls made in the United States -- the numbers involved and the duration of the calls, for example -- but not the contents of the conversations. Supporters of the program say it is a useful tool for detecting terrorists, but a review by an independent government panel found it had limited effectiveness.

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