Privacy SOS

No laughing matter: It’s time to gut the PATRIOT Act

We are joking about dragnet government surveillance when we should be stopping it, Restore the Fourth's Alex Marthews argues for Slate. He's right. Cracking wise about the NSA and FBI spying on our phone calls and emails has become American as apple pie. Unfortunately, we are still mostly in the dark about how exactly the government is using all the information it hoovers up from our digital trails each day. But soon we will have a vital opportunity to stop a lot of that unconstitutional spying.


The FBI, the NSA, and all of the agencies using [PATRIOT Act] Section 215–derived intelligence can only retain access to it if Congress believes that it’s being used for good purposes. But if they were really using the data only for good, why would they be fighting so hard to prevent us from knowing how they’re actually using it?

Section 215 doesn’t actually help catch would-be terrorists, but we can see its effects in our own behavior toward one another. Like our politicians, we make uneasy jokes about how we should watch what we say, about the government looking over our shoulders, about cameras and informers and eyes in the sky. Even though we may not in practice think that these agencies pay us any mind, mass surveillance still creates a chilling effect: We limit what we search for online and inhibit expression of controversial viewpoints. This more submissive mentality isn’t a side effect. As far as anyone is able to measure, it’s the main effect of mass surveillance. The effect of such programs is not primarily to thwart attacks by foreign terrorists on U.S. soil; it’s to discourage challenges to the security services’ authority over our lives here at home.

More than a decade after 9/11, it's time to let these unconstitutional provisions die, and with them, the FBI's power to monitor our associations, travel histories, daily activities, and private lives. Thankfully, we have a major opportunity coming up to kill some of the worst pieces of the PATRIOT Act. The 'roving wiretap,' Section 215 (the metadata surveillance authorization), and 'Lone wolf' provisions will expire on June 1, 2015 unless congress votes to reauthorize them.

It won't be easy. Even after public opinion polls have shown that Americans care about their privacy, there's still significant support in congress for dragnet spying. EFF's Nadia Kayyali points to some of the rhetoric we heard the last time congress voted on these powers:

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed on the Senate floor that “now is not the time to be considering legislation that takes away the exact tools we need to combat ISIL.” Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio—who is now on record as stating that he thinks Section 215 should never expirestated “the world is as dangerous as ever, and extremists are being cultivated and recruited right here at home. This legislation would significantly weaken and, in some cases, entirely do away with some of the most important counter-terrorism capabilities at our disposal, which is why I will not support it."

But no matter how many times mass surveillance boosters fear monger over terrorists, the facts show that massive dragnets don't do squat to protect the public. President Obama himself has been unable to show that dragnet surveillance stops terrorism. The federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board couldn't point to one instance in which dragnet spying "made a concrete difference in the outcome of a terrorism investigation." Furthermore, they were "aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack." Here in Boston we know all too well that while the FBI and NSA's extremely wide net catches all of us, it misses deadly terrorist plots.

The programs set to expire on June 1 give the government far too much power to peer into our private lives, but have no positive impact on public safety. That's an extremely raw deal.

So let's all tell congress: Enough is enough. As Alex Marthews argues, we need to stop making light of authoritarian surveillance regimes, and instead fight to make them history.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.