If you’ve watched the news lately, you have learned the U.S. government can eavesdrop on your phone calls, watch your online search activity, and read your emails. How is this possible?
Information gathering of this nature began with the Patriot Act.
The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, was a bill written and passed in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The bill’s main purpose was to give the government tools to prevent future terrorist attacks on the nation.
The Patriot Act contains many provisions that give the federal government and its agencies expanded powers in conducting investigations to prevent further terror attacks:
- Section 213, also referred to as “sneak and peek,” gives federal investigators with a judicial search warrant the power to secretly enter a home or business without having to notify the owner right away. This power can also be used in ordinary federal criminal investigations.
- Section 215 allows the FBI to seize “business records”–books, papers, documents, and other items–with a court order, if they have convinced a judge that it is part of a terrorist investigation.
- Section 505 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to use “national security letters”–an administrative subpoena that the FBI itself issues without judicial oversight–to obtain transaction records from individuals, businesses, and organizations.
- Both Section 215 and 505 contain gag provisions, which make it a crime for anyone to disclose their receipt of such an order, even after the FBI abandons the investigation.
While some believe that the powers given to the government under the Patriot Act have served to foil terror plots, others argue that such could have been achieved without its passage, and that rather than help combat terrorism, the Act unnecessarily and dangerously infringes upon citizens’ rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
An evaluation of the Patriot Act hinges on defining the relationship between freedom and safety.