As Xeni noted yesterday, the USA PATRIOT Act is now ten years old. In case you were wondering which parts of PATRIOT are the most offensive to liberty, human dignity and commons sense, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has celebrated the occasion with a handy guide to "three of the most dangerous provisions affecting ordinary Americans."
1. SECTION 215 – “ANY TANGIBLE THING”
Under this provision, the FBI can obtain secret court orders for business records and other “tangible things” so long as the FBI says that the records are sought "for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court must issue the order if the FBI so certifies, even when there are no facts to back it up. These “things” can include basically anything—driver’s license records, hotel records, car-rental records, apartment-leasing records, credit card records, books, documents, Internet history, and more. Adding insult to injury, Section 215 orders come with a "gag " prohibiting the recipient from telling anyone, ever, that they received one.
As the New York Times reported, the government may now be using Section 215 orders to obtain “private information about people who have no link to a terrorism or espionage case.” The Justice Department has refused to disclose how they are interpreting the provision, but we do have some indication of how they are using Section 215. While not going into detail, Senator Mark Udall indicated the FBI believes it to allows them “unfettered” access to innocent Americans’ private data, like “a cellphone company’s phone records” in bulk form. The government’s use of these secret orders is sharply increasing -- from 21 orders in 2009 to 96 orders in 2010, an increase of over 400% -- and according to a brand new report from the Washington Post, 80% of those requests are for Internet records.
Today, EFF sued the Justice Department to turn over records related to the government’s secret interpretation and use of Section 215, regarding which Senator Ron Wyden, like Senator Udall, has offered ominous warnings: "When the American people find out about how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act,” said Wyden on the Senate floor in May, “they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.”