The Patriot Act Was Just the Start: 10 Years of Unrestrained Surveillance

Ten years ago, the passage of the Patriot Act fundamentally changed the relationship between Americans and their government. No longer willing to demonstrate probable cause or reasonable suspicion before engaging in intrusive electronic surveillance, the government granted law enforcement agencies broad new power to collect Americans' private information in the name of counterterrorism. If only it stopped there, loosening the standards in place for over 200 years, it'd be alarming enough. But it didn't. Now the government is trying to collect even more electronic information about us, this time in the name of “cybersecurity.”

Our government persists in its misguided belief that the more information it collects, the safer we will be. But there is still no public evidence that the Patriot Act has been useful in thwarting terrorist attacks. So why exactly is law enforcement collecting such massive amounts of information on citizens and when will people stand up and demand an end to the erosion of their privacy?

Instead of feeling safer, many Americans feel like suspects. The government now has easy access to our most personal information — our bank records, our emails, our cell-phone location log, what we buy and what we read. These records can be, and we believe are routinely, handed over to law enforcement with little to no protections in place for our privacy.

The insatiable appetite of the national security state has only grown in the last decade. The Obama administration is proposing a broad new cybersecurity scheme that would allow communication providers to routinely turn over our information to the Department of Homeland Security. This new “information sharing” scheme would trump many privacy laws on the books. Congress may begin debating this proposal as soon as this fall, an opportunity for Americans to question elected officials and candidates for the coming election about where the proper boundaries for privacy should be.

As it stands now, the proposal is written so broadly that anyone who is the victim of a phishing scam or whose computer has been infected with a virus may land in Homeland Security databases. The proposal exempts not only email from privacy protections, but most sensitive data including financial and other online communication records. Every day, we live more and more of our lives online — shopping, balancing our virtual checkbook and communicating with friends, family and work colleagues. This proposal could very easily mean that our online medical records, bank statements and even Amazon purchases could be subject to government collection.

While combating cyber-terrorism is the government's responsibility, we must not — and need not — sacrifice our privacy rights in the process. We certainly shouldn’t do so when there is no evidence the information the government wants to collect is necessary to keep us safe. Our basic constitutional rights should not be so easily overridden.

The legacy of the Patriot Act and the post-9/11 surveillance laws that followed is the now systematic collection of information by our government on wide swaths of innocent people who are not suspected of breaking the law or being involved with terrorism. That legacy must end when Congress considers cybersecurity legislation. We cannot allow those in power to keep ratcheting up our national security laws while the laws governing our privacy remain unaltered. As members of Congress and the administration debate this proposal, for once, our privacy must be considered just as high a priority as our security.