My Birthday Wish for the USA PATRIOT Act

The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act and I have a special bond – not only did I grow up with it over the past decade, but we also share the same birthday.

When the USA PATRIOT Act was first passed ten years ago today, I was a teenager in high school with no concept of what it was and what it would do. My days remained the same. It wasn’t even discussed in school, at my friends’ houses, or at home. Elsewhere, I’m sure people were having conversations about the implications of the USA PATRIOT Act, but in my little world, it felt as if nothing had changed.

In reality, things dramatically changed.

Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to obtain "any tangible thing (including books, records, papers, documents and other items), for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." This section is also known as the “library provision” because it can be used to demand anything from your library records to your internet browsing history. This is greatly unsettling to me, especially as technology advanced quickly and internet became an essential part of everyday life. The thought of the government going through my electronic communications, browsing history, and download records disturbed me. I thought that peeking into my private life was the act of hackers, not my own government.

The USA PATRIOT Act also restricts other areas of American liberties. Under Section 213, the government is allowed to obtain information using “sneak and peek” searches without any evidence of a crime or notifying the subjects. Notice of search is a crucial check on the government’s power by forcing the investigators to operate in the open. Section 206, “roving John Doe wiretap,” permits the government to obtain surveillance orders that do not identify the person or location to be tapped. This provision is in direct contradiction of traditional search and seizure notions as stated in the Fourth Amendment – requiring the government to state what specifically it seeks to search or seize. Because of provisions like these, over the past decade, Americans became less free without feeling any more secure.

One response often heard when discussing the USA PATRIOT Act is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” However, privacy allows us to maintain our individuality. Our choices define us; if we are constantly asked to justify our preference, we become restricted in our decision making and may feel pressured to conform to the majority mindset. Unfortunately, the USA PATRIOT Act violates our constitutional right to privacy. The commitment to national security should not justify nor equate to reduction of American liberties. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

And still, Americans still do not feel safe and still live in fear of another terrorist act on our country. Fear prompted the hasty passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and opened the door for our government to broaden surveillance on Americans without suspicion. It blinded us to the lack of boundaries to limit the government’s collection and use of data. It fueled the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act earlier this year.

Now, because of the USA PATRIOT Act we also fear what the government might do with our private information. We fear that we may appear to be unpatriotic should we speak up about our concerns.

My birthday wish, and my hope for the next four years, is for you to help the ACLU fight against that irrational fear, speak up about the unwarranted government surveillance, and seek to restore our civil liberties. We are always looking for more civil libertarians to join us!