Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, signed into existence in 2001 in the wake of the horrific Trade Center massacre, and renewed in 2005 and 2006, is set to expire in June 2015. However, it won’t just disappear or vanish by itself as we hope, especially if there is no public awareness or debate about it, it may be “set to expire” but, apparently if it’s not an issue Congress is compelled to pay attention to, it will really be “set to be reauthorized automatically.” (See Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deep Links blog post here.)
So it’s really up to us–you and me, ordinary Americans living through these extraordinary times of Rights violations of every kind in our country–to speak out, compel public debate, and force through the expiration of Section 215 of a wholly invasive Act (the whole of which really needs to expire).
Many rights groups, advocates, and tech companies are beginning to speak out about the need to end Section 215:
Chris Burt, Whir.com
“Tech companies sent a letter to Congress this week to urge legal limitations to electronic surveillance and metadata collection. The letter is undersigned by group member companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, as well as a range of privacy and rights advocates.
The group suggests that as Section 215 of the Patriot Act expires on June 1, the time is ripe to draft reforms which will protect both national security and individual privacy. Other supporters include hosting company ServInt, Internet Infrastructure Coalition, and CloudFlare.”
“Google also invites the public to co-sign their letter, which is addressed to President Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, and several other key lawmakers.” Read full article: Tech Companies Rally for Reform of Section 215 of USA Patriot Act
Sue Udry, Defending Dissent Foundation
“A strong coalition of civil rights and civil liberties groups, frustrated that Congress has not been able to pass surveillance reform legislation, is taking aim at Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
All of these sections are concerning, but Section 215 takes the cake. It’s the authority that the NSA, with the FBI’s help, has interpreted to allow the U.S. government to vacuum up the call records of millions of innocent people. It’s also been the focus of most of the NSA reform efforts in Congress over the last year and a half. But if there were ever a time to reform the NSA, it’s now—because a vote for reauthorization, without comprehensive reform of NSA spying, will very clearly be a vote against the Constitution.” Read Full Article: Advocacy Groups Tell Congress Scrap Section 215
To understand why Section 215 is problematic, consider, if you live in the United States in 2015:
1) The FBI can at any time secretly order any business (your school, University, library, hospital, dentist, doctor, bank, credit card company) to turn over any records or “tangible things” relating to you–simply by saying the information is needed “for an authorized investigation…to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” Not presenting any evidence whatsoever that you have any of these connections, to “international terrorism” or “clandestine intelligence”.
This can happen arbitrarily, to Anyone. The FBI now does not need to prove anything to anyone; the “authorizing” of the investigation is from the secret FISA court, who is actually told by the FBI to issue the authorizing, after being told the records are being sought for a terrorism or espionage investigation. (“Nor does the FBI still need actual facts to show that you may be a spy or terrorist. Instead, these secret orders can now be used to investigate anyone, even a U.S. citizen not suspected of any crime, so long as the FBI certifies to the FISA court that the records are sought for a terrorism or espionage investigation. The FISA court must issue the order if the FBI so certifies, even when there are no facts to back it up.”–Let the Sun Set on PATRIOT- Section 215, Electronic Frontier Foundation)
2) The FBI will, along with the above, “gag” the recipient: This business–or staffperson– is absolutely forbidden (“gagged”) (by threat of massive fine and many years in prison) from telling You, the focus of this covert, baseless, factless, evidence-less investigation, that your private school, financial, medical records have been divulged, that they are well on their way to being shared with thousands of people in the hundreds of security agencies we now have, that your emails are being read widely, that your library records: books, movies, tapes you’ve borrowed are now common knowledge. This business is served a Section 215 letter, which means: No Divulge.
3) What the above violates is your Fourth Amendment to privacy–now the FBI can search through your most private records/even those not online, without having to prove you are in any way remotely connected to crime of any kind.
4) To add, you can be investigated on the basis of your First Amendment rights as well–by virtue of the websites you visit, or the books that you read. (“Furthermore, under Section 215 the FBI can investigate United States persons (citizens and legal residents) based at least in part on their exercise of First Amendment rights, and can investigate non-U.S. persons based solely on their free speech activities or religious practices. You could be investigated based on the political or religious meetings you attend, the websites you visit or even the books that you read. As a result, Americans may be chilled from exercising these Constitutional rights. –Let the Sun Set on PATRIOT- Section 215, Electronic Frontier Foundation)
5) You’re kept in the dark. No-one will tell you they’ve been served with a Section 215 letter on you — although you may experience negative consequence from this action and suspect what is happening: you may suddenly lose your job, be suspended from school, be denied a loan, experience hostile treatment from employers/community members. The FBI will tell you, if you ask, via FOIA request, that they “cannot confirm or deny” that they’re investigating you–in other words, they will claim a FOIA exemption, in the name of national security–their intent here clearly is to keep you in the dark, so they can keep their fraudulent, baseless investigation secret and ongoing, and maintain, in this way, a distinct hold on your community as well, by forcing them to keep silent about being served with a Section 215 letter on you. What can you do about something no-one will acknowledge? Yes, we are in Kafkaesque terrain here, and no, you can’t escape, nor can you respond. Due process is officially dead, and you are being sealed off from judicial recourse. You are being “investigated”–and everyone “knows,” but you. (What exactly they “know” is questionable, since the FBI is not required to, nor can, furnish any proof of your non-existent espionage or terrorism; this is merely the long arm of the security state flexing its muscle.)
6) So, from the business end: if you are a business (like Google or Facebook or Yahoo or the local medical center) being secretly served with this letter/order demanding you turn over all emails/records of some particular customer/client, you cannot take anyone to court here, you cannot challenge the legality of what’s being done, you cannot demur, protest, deny. You have to pull out all those private records and hand them over. This is being done In Secret. And Secrecy permits Abuse. (“…unlike grand jury subpoenas used in non-FISA investigations, there is no way for someone served with a Section 215 order to go to court and challenge its legality. Combined with the FISA court’s lack of discretion and oversight when it comes to Section 215 orders, this is a recipe for abuse, giving the FBI essentially unchecked power to scrutinize the personal lives of innocent Americans.” —Let the Sun Set on PATRIOT- Section 215, Electronic Frontier Foundation)
To understand further why Section 215 must be ended, see ACLU’s page which has a really clear set of reasons why, as also Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deep Links blog, and Mozilla’s Open Policy and Advocacy blog. To understand that Section 215 is about more than just bulk collection of phone records, visit the Center for Democracy and Technology’s video post.
To understand why the FISA court processes–which work with the FBI as mentioned above–are problematic (literally, these FISA surveillance orders are being opened arbitrarily by the FBI and NSA on thousands of innocent Americans), see the page here, which collects some news information and statistics on the incredible numbers of FISA warrants being handed out: Wrongful Surveillance and Secret Physical Searches On Thousands of Innocent Americans Permitted by “Rubber-Stamped” FISA Court Warrants and Approvals.
To speak out/add your voice/act to restore democracy, privacy, sanity to the US, please visit the petition pages set up at Electronic Frontier Fund, Defending Dissent, and drop in at Google’s letter to Congress to sign, to begin the process to bring this issue to the fore of public conversation and ensure that Section 215 dies a natural death in June.