Changes In New ‘Patriot Act Lite’ A Step In The Right Direction

Over the past 13 years, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, billions have been spent by federal, state and regional governments in an attempt to choke off such attacks from ever happening again.

We can speculate forever whether the multitude of actions taken have been truly effective, and to what degree. We can even ponder how much 9/11 led to the increase of law enforcement militarization, which has its roots years before the attacks, when the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 allowed the transfer of excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. And we can contemplate how much of an impact the passage of the USA Patriot Act has had on our individual and collective civil liberties.

“Government is legitimately charged with defending life, liberty and property against both domestic and foreign predators. First among those obligations is to protect life,” wrote Robert Levy of the Cato Institute after the controversial law was enacted in October 2001. “With America under attack, and lives at risk, civil liberties cannot remain inviolable. But that’s a far cry from asserting that they may be flouted to wage war against fanatics.”

“If you are concerned about Fifth Amendment protection of due process, and Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures, then you should be deeply troubled by the looming sacrifice of civil liberties at the altar of national security,” Levy added.

In the years that have passed, the scope of the Patriot Act has been widely discussed. While most are comfortable with the provisions designed to track and catch would-be terrorists, many have been deeply concerned about how often everyday Americans are caught up in its wake.

Several key provisions of the Patriot Act expired June 1. Among them is the notorious “Section 215,” which authorized bulk collection of Americans’ telephone data — something a federal court has ruled illegal. The National Security Agency used Section 215 as the basis for collecting a plethora of phone records of Americans not necessarily under official investigation. It was also used to track financial data and to obtain companies’ Internet business records. The extent of the mass surveillance program was revealed two years ago by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

However, not all investigations of phone records under Section 215 will stop immediately. A clause in the Patriot Act allows the NSA to continue investigations it has already started. Other provisions that expired enabled the government to conduct “roving wiretaps” of suspects who switch communication devices, or spy on “lone wolf” individuals who are unaffiliated with an international terrorism organization.

In place of the Patriot Act, we now have what civil libertarians have quickly dubbed “Patriot Act Lite,” the new USA Freedom Act, signed into law Tuesday. Yes, the feds can still go after your phone, iPad, e-mail, text and other such records, it’s just a bit more difficult to pull it off and requires more authorization.

The key component of the Freedom Act is it ends the NSA phone dragnet in favor of a system that relies on telecommunication companies to provide select phone records to the government on an as-needed, judicially approved basis. It also requires heightened transparency measures associated with government data searches, and it allows tech companies to be more forthcoming regarding how many times they are tapped for data by government agencies.

So when all is said and done, Big Brother is still watching over us. It’s just a little less intrusive. Hopefully, the government will keep to the true spirit of the law and use it to track terrorists, not law-abiding citizens.