Waiting For Sunset: The Patriot Act

9.22.2004

Is Big Brother Watching? You May Never Know.

Seeing as though the Patriot Act is such a long piece of legislation, 342 pages to be exact, I've taken it upon myself to try and point out some of the more intrusive policies that have the ACLU and many cities upset. One of the biggest complaints about the Patriot Act is that it violates our privacy, and worse, without us even knowing about it. Though laws that existed before the Patriot Act did allow similar surveillance without prior knowledge, what has changed is that the Patriot Act allows this sort of access with fewer obstacles. Here are some examples.

Section 215 allows the government to access secretly from third party holders your private finance, library, travel, video rental, phone, medical, church, synagogue, and mosque records as long as it credits the search to protecting terrorism. Prior to this act, the a search could only be authorized with a warrant citing probable cause. Now, the judge has no authority to reject an inquiry. Section 213 allows for secret searches of your home and property without prior notice—and without a warrant. This undermines the original 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (
FISA), which only extended no-warrant searches to a small number of cases, specifically those linked to foreign espionage. With the Patriot Act, the government can reason that it's trying to gather any foreign intelligence on all Americans.

Another dangerous provision of the act is Section 214, where the government can wiretap your phone and see all the incoming calls without a warrant, as long as it certifies the information relevant to an investigation of terrorism. Again, this can be done without your knowledge. Further, Section 206 authorizes roving taps. Roving taps are not specific to a single phone, but to every possible phone or computer that the person in question might encounter. Theoretically, this gives the government full priveleges to all communications made by a device, even if it is not that specific user (e.g. a main phone tapped in an office). Section 505, similar to 215 listed above, can force third party holders of personal records to turn them over with a simple national security letter from the attorney general or a delegate, even if the citizen is not suspected to be involved in espionage (this subpoena requires no probable cause or judicial oversight). This broadens the number of citizens who can be subject to this search with little resistance in receiving authorization.

Spawning from Section 802 is the new category of crime called "domestic terrorism," which puts in danger political protesters in our country. This section makes punishable activities that "involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States" if the person's intent is to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." The creation of a new type of crime has serious implications, especially if it may hamper one's right to protest.

As a last, rather relevant provision to this medium, there is Section 216. This provides that tapping phones applies to the Internet as well. Yes, that means that the government can trace your dialing, routing, and signaling, and they can find out what sites you browse. Before the Patriot Act, internet surveillance was essentially unregulated, but under this piece of legislation, it has been defined.

These are just a few of the controversies that the Patriot Act has engendered, according to angry civil rights activists who feel their rights have been threatened. If you would like to read more about the acts' effects on our lives, the ACLU has a fact
sheet.