After the 9-11 attacks on The World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, Congress quickly and without much discussion, passed the Patriot Act, the single biggest spying operation likely ever. Under the Patriot Act, the government was able to collect information on Internet traffic, mostly of foreigners. The amount of data that they collected and are collecting is staggering, forcing the NSA to build a huge new data center in the Utah desert.
The law was supposed to expire in 4 years, but Congress has renewed renewed the act twice, once under President Bush and once under President Obama. A couple of parts were allowed to expire and a few tweaks have been made to the law, but basically it continues to operate. Parts of the act were due to expire on December 31, 2019, but Congress snuck a three month extension to the parts that were due to expire into the recently passed government funding bill, so as to give Congress more time to discuss it. In general, this is probably a good idea, but sneaking it into another bill, a popular habit of Congress when they think their votes might attract undo attention, is something that I am not so fond of.
One section that is due to expire is Section 702, which allows for bulk data collection. Actually it is metadata – information like WHO you are calling, when and for how long, but NOT the actual conversation.
In theory, the FBI is only supposed to access this data in cases of terrorism or suspected terrorism, but in their excitement over a new data source, they accessed it at least tens of thousands of times in cases that had nothing to do with terrorism.
A federal court ruled that the way the FBI was using this database was likely unconstitutional, but they did not make them stop it. What they did say is that you need to do a better job of creating paperwork to
justify document what you are doing. This involved a case of a US citizen who was jailed for and admitted to giving material support to a terrorist organization – someone who would not generate a lot of sympathy.
Still, it is useful to shed some light on the inner workings of the government. The appeals court said that gathering the data under section 215 was likely legal, but using that data to obtain information on a US citizen without a warrant is a no-no. This aligns the court with two recent Supreme Court decisions on the subject of privacy.
The interesting thing is that, apparently, it is pretty difficult for the NSA to collect data only on foreigners, so difficult that last year they had to purge the entire database and right now, the NSA says that they don’t need or want this ability any more.
However, the Director of National Intelligence, a role who’s fundamental job is to collect and analyze as much data as is possible, says not only should Congress renew it, but they should make it permanent so they don’t have to justify it every 4 or 5 years. See details here.
We are likely to hear more about this in the next couple of months, so if privacy and government spying is an issue that is import to you, then becoming educated and communicating with your elected officials is something you should do.