Justifiable and Unjustifiable Government Interference

Since the Patriot Act was enacted after September 11, 2001. There has been an ongoing argument about the validity of the Patriot Act and whether or not it is a violation of civil rights. The question is how far is too far? How much intrusion will Americans allow into their lives for the sake of national security?

The Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001. The Patriot Act has 16 provisions that give the government surveillance and legal powers to use against terrorists. Since 9/11, there have been no other terror attacks on American soil. Since this time has passed with no other attacks, people are starting to question whether the Patriot Act should be scaled back or whether we even need it at all. The Patriot Act addresses several new areas in surveillance. I will touch on a couple of those new provisions and what they mean. Pen Register or Trap and Trace Orders:

Currently, law enforcement agencies involved in intelligence investigations can obtain a ‘pen register’ or ‘trap and trace’ order under which they can have access to numbers dialed and received by a particular phone. In order to obtain a pen/trap order, law enforcement must show that the information they are seeking is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation and that the suspect that they are tracking is ‘in communication with’ someone involved in international terrorism or intelligence activities. This is a much lower standard than the probable cause standard used in criminal investigations. The Patriot Act reduces this standard even further, eliminating the ‘in communication with’ requirement. Law enforcement officials must simply show that the information they are seeking is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. Under this provision, when law enforcement requests a pen/trap order from a judge, he must issue it. The judge has no discretion to refuse, even if he/she views it as unnecessary or unjust.

These are the types of provisions that concern opponents to the Patriot Act and those who think our privacy is being threatened. Although, it this may help in the fight against terrorists, opponents contend that it could be used against all citizens. I have a hard time believing that law enforcement is going to be wasting their time with people that are not involved in some type of terrorist or criminal activity. This doesn’t mean that the powers could not be abused or that mistakes could not be made. Just that in the grand scheme of things, these instances are unlikely. And if they do happen, the consequences in relation to the issue of national security is not likely to be all that great.

The PA also extends the scope of information that can be obtained using a pen/trap order. Law enforcement may now have access to ‘dialing, routing, and signaling’ information where in the past it could only be used to obtain telephone numbers dialed and received. The reference to routing information refer specifically to internet use – either for email or browsing. The PA expressly states that the “contents” of communications may not be obtained with trap/trace orders, but the PA does not define the term.

The FBI began using a new tool called “Carnivore” to monitor email and instant messages. They claim it will be very effective against terrorists. Opponents claim it can be used against any citizen. Carnivore lets them monitor everyone who uses the same internet provider that the suspect uses, whether they are under investigation or not. The argument is that new rules need to be put into place to prevent innocent people from being tracked instead of relying on the FBI to filter out any non-relevant information.

Because content cannot easily be separated from internet routing information, in order to obtain an email address, law enforcement must be given access to the entire email packet and then is entrusted to only viewing the address and deleting the content without viewing it. With internet browsing, content cannot be easily separated from internet routing information either. This is different from telephone calls where the numbers dialed and received can easily be separated from the content of the phone call.

The PA increases the scope of subpoenas. In the past, the government could use a subpoena to compel an ISP or website to release the following information about their subscribers: customer’s name, address, length of service, and method of payment. The government could not get credit cards numbers, bank account numbers or other more specific indentifying information. PA now authorizes the government to obtain credit card numbers and bank account numbers through subpoenas. Law enforcement argues that this is essential information as many people register with websites using false names and this is the only way to get a positive ID. There is no judicial review involved in the subpoena process and therefore no check to make sure law enforcement has the proper grounds.

As you can see, the PA has given much broader authority to law enforcement personnel. This increase in power has raised alarms from opponents of the PA. Civil libertarians fear that concerns about national security will erode civil liberties.

The key is to try and find some sort of balance. The problem is that both sides continue to argue for their point of view. Can there be a balance when you’re talking about our national security? Which is more important? Are civil liberties more important than the national security of our country? I personally don’t see how you can prioritize civil liberties over our national security.

History shows that we have underestimated dangers many times in the past. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cold War espionage, Cuban missile crisis, the Tet Offensive to name a few. There are even theories out there that we had advance knowledge of 9/11. Perhaps we tend to overreact. But we cannot underestimate the importance of national security. We already know that there are plenty of people out there that want to see our destruction. It doesn’t matter what we do, what we say, how we handle things. They want us destroyed no matter what, so this whole theory of trying to figure out what we did wrong or why they hate us is a complete waste of time. Because they don’t care. They have one objective only.

I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to strike a balance that is acceptable to both sides. I understand the need to protect civil liberties. The issue I have is that situations sometimes dictate what needs to be done. I don’t think the fears that we’ll lose our civil liberties is a valid one. This idea that they’ll take a little at a time and pretty soon we’ll have none. I just don’t buy it. Not in this Country. It’s too strong, there’s too much individualism in America. The people would never allow it. There would be a revolt before it would ever happen. I guess since I have nothing to hide, I don’t mind that the government has certain powers or takes certain steps to ensure the security of our nation.

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