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The PATRIOT Act: When Reform Isn’t Enough

Picture by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Picture by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This Sunday, the Senate will debate major provisions of the PATRIOT Act in light of its upcoming expiration. One result of the expiration means that the privacy of Americans’ phone records will be restored. In response to the deadline of the PATRIOT Act, earlier this month, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, which reformed the law to terminate the bulk collection of phone metadata. The debate in the Senate will come down to the wire, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling for a Sunday session to get a clean vote in order to renew the PATRIOT Act fully.

This new debate can almost exclusively be attributed to Edward Snowden and his leaks exposing the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone data, which was authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Not only are liberal privacy advocates against the law, so are conservatives.

The PATRIOT Act has been criticized for two reasons:

  1. It infringes on our Fourth Amendment rights protecting us from unreasonable searches and requiring a warrant for any search- the government in essence had carte blanche to check any American’s phone records. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that the NSA’s collection of phone records was unconstitutional.

  2. The government conducted an audit and concluded that Section 215 did not even help in terror investigations. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, in its report stated, “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

The House’s passage of the USA Freedom Act is a positive step toward reclaiming the values protected in our Constitution. While reform may sound like a positive step for the Patriot Act, it is even better for the law to merely expire. If not, it may, in fact entrench other concerning provisions that the reform does not address.

Our privacy is one of our most cherished American values. However, the PATRIOT Act negatively impacted Americans in other ways that have not been examined- for example, its stymied charitable giving and non-disclosure by the government on blacklisting organizations and individuals from engaging in commerce or political activity. Vigilance in holding the government accountable is critical to both promoting effective security policies and preserving the open society that makes America the great nation it is.

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