USA Patriot Act of 2001: The Party-Line

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both – Benjamin Franklin

I have been amused the last week by the public attention given to the Patriot Act and the use of the FISA Court warrants for tracking calls on Verizon and who knows how many other providers that were not leaked.  I’m amused because so many claim they did not know this was happening or did not expect it to happen.  If one doesn’t know it can only be explained through naiveté or forgetfulness.

The USA Patriot Act of 2001 was overwhelmingly and rapidly passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in October of 2001 and a four-year extension, the Patriot Sunset Extension Act of 2011, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in May 2011.  The title alone explains the purpose of the act, which was to strengthen America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism.  The Act implemented or enhanced government’s enforcement abilities in some key areas:

  1. Regulation of financial transactions,
  2. Discretion of law enforcement and immigration to detain and deport individuals “suspected” of terrorism including domestic terrorism, and
  3. Searches without the occupant’s knowledge including searches of telephone, email, financial records, and business records.

Or as the government would describe it:

  1. Allows investigators to use the tools that were already available to investigate crime and drug trafficking.
    1. Allows law enforcement to use surveillance against more crimes of terror,
    2. Allows federal agents to follow sophisticated terrorists trained to evade detection,
    3. Allows law enforcement to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists, and
    4. Allows federal agents to ask a court for an order to obtain business records in national security terrorism cases.
    5. Facilitated information sharing and cooperation among government agencies so they can better “connect the dots”.
    6. Updated the law to reflect ne technologies and new threats.
    7. Increased penalties for those who commit terrorist crimes.

Whether one reads the brief summary of the Patriot Act or the full text it is important to read and to understand.  One then should read the Patriot Sunset Extension Act of 2011. The full extent of the benefits and risks are not as simple as the media and the government would have one believe.

Knowing this why are we finally upset?  The answer is that many didn’t like the law at the time, but there was what can only be described as widespread panic after the 9/11 attacks.  People willingly gave away their freedom for security and we have continued to do so everyday since.  We have done it in little ways.  We willingly walk through metal detectors and have bags searched when we go to a ballgame or a concert.  We first put our items through a scanner at the airport, then ourselves, then took off our shoes, and are now virtually strip searched so anyone can see “all” of us.  There are security cameras and traffic cameras everywhere.  Since we let all of this be done why not our phones, emails, and social medias?

The truth is we give away our privacy everyday.  Most people today do not remember the “party-line” (Dennis the Menace – Party Line) when it meant a shared telephone line and not a political view.  The party line was shared and anyone on one’s line could listen in.  There were few secrets in a neighborhood because the operator could also listen.  We wanted that telephone and so it was worth the loss of privacy.  We sign up for rewards cards and they are tracked. We use credit cards for everything we purchase and the information is sold.  We have gps on our cars and and every place we go is tracked.  All of this we do voluntarily because we want a service. This doesn’t even begin to consider what we put on Facebook, Google, YouTube, and more.  We “check in” willing and enjoy it.  It connects us to people.

The same connections that we love so much are also used for terrorism and to recruit terrorists.  They are used to indoctrinate vulnerable young people and to quickly spread plans.  The USA Patriot Act was an attempt to identify and stop terrorism before it happened.  We knew at the time if we gave away a freedom that it would be a little more, a little more, a little more with the potential of significantly eroding our freedom.  Maybe the most dangerous portion was the redefining of terrorism to include domestic terrorism.  Domestic terrorism is defined as:

Any activity that involves an act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources, and is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state or other subdivision of the United States and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

In other words, virtually anything that is a crime and is dangerous to human life or property is now terrorism.

We gave away our freedom because were scared and vulnerable.  We let the government take from us what we went to war to prevent the terrorist from taking.  There is no doubt that the tools of the USA Patriot Act have been used to protect us from terrorism.  They build a virtual network of potential terrorists.  Unfortunately, within that net there are always innocent people.  The question is, is it worth it?  Is becoming more secure worth having our every move monitored?  Is it worth slowing becoming a police state?  What will be tracked next – your medical record? What freedom is next – religion?

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