Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sunrise, Sunset on Section 215 of the Patriot Act

Rand Paul (R-KY), a Senator known for having strong libertarian leanings, filibustered for nearly 11 hours last week. His reason for talking so long? To make sure that Section 215 of the Patriot Act does not get renewed. Given how legislative procedure works in this country, it looks like Paul might have succeeded. But what was so bad about Section 215 of the Patriot Act that a senator would spend hours on end delaying its renewal?

The Patriot Act already has a bad rap, especially among civil liberty advocates, as the one of the worst, if not the worst, coups to American civil liberties. Taking a look at the Patriot Act, we can see why. Section 215 is the purported legal justification for the National Security Administration's (NSA) metadata collection. The idea behind gathering the metadata is to assist in an investigation to "protect international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." This pretext has allowed for the NSA to collect metadata without a warrant.

I had expressed concerns with such actions in December 2013. Aside from stressing the importance of privacy, not only had I concluded that such metadata collection was inefficient, but also that it was costing the American people, both in terms of dollars and in freedom. Since then, two computer science doctoral candidates at Stanford conducted a study to find out how sensitive metadata really are (and it is!). The New America Foundation, a DC-based think tank, found that such actions had "no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism" (Bergen et al., 2014). The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded something similar. If the government cannot cite a single instance in which metadata collection has actually thwarted terrorism, then why quash civil liberties?

There are those, like the people over at the Right-wing Heritage Foundation, who think we should reform such laws without dealing with the overlying issue that such surveillance does nothing to complete its goal. My response? Forget that noise! It doesn't work. It doesn't protect us from the bad guys, and what's more is that it's not even legal. The recent ruling by the Second Appellate Court has ruled (ACLU v. Clapper) that the NSA's actions are not authorized by the Patriot Act, and that the scope of such data collection is much narrower than what is taking place. Instead, we should work towards ensuring that the government doesn't have such unfettered access to metadata again because in all honesty, actual gains in privacy are better than the improbable potential of a negligible gain in intelligence.

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