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Revisions to the U.S. Patriot Act

The Patriot Act, passed shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, was designed to give US law enforcement greatly expanded power to conduct surveillance and other activities without the need for warrants and other legal measures. The impending expiration of primary provisions of the Patriot Act has catalyzed considerable legislative activity within the US Congress, particularly within the House of Representatives. Certain House members are greatly focused on introducing significant changes to this law.

At the center of much of the activity surrounding this law is the provision that telephone companies that cooperate with the US government in turning over customer information are granted legal immunity. This particular provision, which is not due to expire at the end of this year, concerns National Security Letters (NSLs), which are defined by Wikipedia as the following:

“… a form of administrative subpoena used by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and reportedly by other U.S. Government Agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. It is a demand letter issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various record and data pertaining to individuals. They require no probable cause or judicial oversight. They also contain a gag order, preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued.”
The fact that no probable cause or judicial oversight is necessary for NSLs to be issued has been a major concern of civil libertarians. Proposed changes in the proposed House of Representatives legislation (in the Conyers-Nadler-Scott Bill) would greatly limit the conditions under which NSLs could be issued under the provisions of the Patriot Act—namely, only when spy or terrorism activity by someone or a foreign entity were involved. The story in the Senate is completely different. A similar bill sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois did not even make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has not gotten even that far in getting a bill designed to limit immunity to telecommunications carriers for “turning in customers” to a vote. Clearly, the Senate and House are a long way apart when it comes to views about changing provisions of the Patriot Act.
So where does it all go from here? My gut feeling is that eventually some of the provisions of the Patriot Act will be toned down. As I have said before in my Computers and Security editorials, the Patriot Act, while well-intentioned, aids and abets potential tyrants. This act is not only badly misnamed, but it also has dismal implications for civil rights, personal liberty, and privacy. The overreaction after the events of September 2001 has for the most part come to an end. It is now thus well time to revise the provisions of this act to be much more in accordance with the realities of the current world as well as the ideals and values of America.

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