The Patriot Act and Section 215
May 20, 2015
In the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center twin towers, the Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2011. Its purpose was to provide the federal government with the authority that it needed to forestall acts of domestic terrorism through heightened surveillance; to include physical, and all electronic means of communications in which Americans engage.
While helping our government to prevent mass acts of terrorism in the intervening years, we now know that that the security that we have enjoyed came at a high price. Beginning with the revelations of Edward Snowden (a political fugitive beyond the extradition of the U.S.), about the vast amount of metadata that the government had been collecting from unsuspecting citizens. Snowden revealed that the government had been using Section 215 of The Patriot Act to engage in what the Atlantic Magazine article termed “dragnet surveillance” of virtually all domestic telephone records without the knowledge or consent of those being surveyed.
The Patriot Act has been very controversial with civil libertarians and others who view it as heightened and overly broad surveillance in violation of privacy rights of all Americans. To remedy what many felt was an illegal and excessively broad interpretation of section 215, the house passed the USA FREEDOM ACT ( H.R. 2048)) on May 12 to restrict NSA collection of sensitive private data in advance of the June 1 expiration of the Patriot Act. Almost simultaneously the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the bulk collection of phone records without a warrant was illegal. With the House passage of the Freedom Act, as described above, portions of Section 215 will be modified if the Senate follows suit.
Protecting our nation involves balancing the privacy right of individuals with the government’s overarching interest in maintaining our national security. Some have been willing to give up rights seen as basic to us as Americans for the personal sense of safety and security. However, freedoms are a funny thing, once surrendered to the government, they are seldom given back to the real owners, American citizens.
What do you think? Are you bothered by the NSA collecting your personal phone information? Has government become too intrusive, or are you willing to sacrifice your privacy rights for a sense of security that might come when you know that the authorities are watching and listening for suspicious activity. Is it worth it? Only we as citizens can make this call. How will you decide?
Janice is a Legal Information Services Librarian at our Main Library.