Understanding the Patriot Act

  • Copy by: Daryl Lindsey

The Patriot Act. Chances are you’ve probably heard about it.

The anti-terrorism act has been in and out of the media spotlight for well over a decade, and the media frenzy is back again in full force this week as major elements of the controversial law expire and new bills are debated to take their place.

In a world where terrorism and extremist groups pose a very real threat to national security, the issues and implications surrounding the Patriot act matter.

But with all of the information (and misinformation) out there, where does one even begin to learn about it? We’ve assembled a helpful guide that will hopefully clear a few things up. 

Let’s start at the beginning: What exactly is the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act is a law that lifted restrictions on communications surveillance so that the government could access phone records—yes, all phone records, among many other things—without warrants or permission from telephone companies.

President Bush signed the act into law in 2001, just weeks after 9/11 citing that the act would “…enhance the penalties that will fall on terrorists or anyone who helps them.”

Post 9/11 tensions were high and the act was passed by a landslide vote in both the House and the Senate, but critics of the law believed the invasion of ordinary citizens’ privacy went too far and violated citizens’ basic liberties.

That thing with Edward Snowden


Remember this guy? The NSA’s dealings in data collection were mostly hush-hush until he showed up in 2013.

Part hero, part traitor (or is it the other way around?) Edward J. Snowden is the whistleblower who went public with the true scale of the Patriot Act’s spying spree.

The Snowden fiasco left Americans disillusioned and support for the Patriot Act plummeted.

To make a very long story short, the former NSA contractor stole thousands of classified documents and fled to Hong Kong, where he passed the information along to journalists who could spread the story globally. Snowden believed that the NSA’s behavior was unethical and that a government agency allowed to tap into any phone at any time for any reason was far too powerful.

“We were sleepwalking into abandoning our privacy,” said David Cole, professor of law at Georgetown University. “Snowden has woken us up.”

The Snowden fiasco left Americans disillusioned with the NSA and support for the Patriot Act plummeted.

The Patriot Act Expires

Fast forward to the present. Three vital provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire on June 1st if the senate couldn’t come to an agreement about an extension. Spoiler alert: They couldn’t.

The three expired clauses are: 
Section 206: The U.S. can tap into any (yes, any) mobile device or computer that a potential terrorist might use, even if the suspect switches phones, no warrant required.

Section 6001: The U.S. can track and monitor suspected “lone wolf” terrorists, or terrorists not affiliated with any known terrorist groups.

Section 215: The U.S. can seize “any tangible things” deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation. This is the provision that raises the most eyebrows; the notion of “any tangible things” seems dangerously vague.

But what does America want?

According to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, 61% of Americans think that the Patriot Act should be renewed, despite 65% of Americans finding the limitations on government surveillance “inadequate.”

Translation: People don’t like what the government has power to do, but they generally see the invasion of privacy as a necessary sacrifice to keep people safe.

Graph via NPR

What happens now?

Some would deem the sections listed above as “dangerous,” while others might define them as “crucial,” but congress felt the bill was in need of some serious rebranding. A new bill, the USA Freedom Act, passed in the House of Representatives on May 13 and passed in the Senate late Tuesday afternoon.

A new bill? What are you talking about?

Most of the Patriot Act is still alive and well, but the USA Freedom Act will serve as a replacement of the expired sections. Though similar to the Patriot Act in a lot of ways, this one is less controversial because it will return data collecting responsibilities to telephone companies (read: less creepy government spying) and require the NSA to obtain court orders on a case by case basis in order to access private customer information. The Senate finally came to an agreement this week and the bill passed with 67 senators in favor and 32 against. The President is pleased.

The New York Times