They Call This Patriotism?

Article excerpt

SINCE ESSENTIAL PARTS of the controversial USA Patriot Act are slated to expire next year, President Bush has chosen to highlight the legislation as a major campaign issue. "The Patriot Act defends our liberty," said the President during a recent stump speech in Pennsylvania.

This strikes civil liberties groups as Orwellian. As with many other incursions against civil liberties, though, advocates of anti-privacy legislation say the laws are justified because of terrorist threats to the country.

The Patriot Act, says Ari Schwartz of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology, "is clearly number one" on the list of the Bush Administration's sins against privacy, while its utility against terror is much less clear.

And while the Patriot Act is the most high-profile example of the Bush administration's disregard for privacy, it is far from the only one, say privacy advocates.

Much of the Patriot Act--such as increased funding for border security--is innocuous. But hidden within it are numerous provisions that make the policy, in Schwartz's words, "the biggest threat to privacy since the 1970s."

Why the alarm bells? Powers to spy have been expanded while due process protections have been contracted. Consider the case of so-called "roving wiretaps," where law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation can record telephone or Internet activity at multiple sites. Before the Patriot Act, the FBI already had the ability to issue these wiretaps, but had to meet certain standards. First, the agency had to specify a suspect under surveillance and the phones or computers intended for monitoring. Second, it had to prove that the intended target of the investigation was actually using the particular phone or computer being tapped. Now, neither is the case, increasing fears that innocent people not under suspicion could have their conversations monitored without notification, without reasonable suspicion and without court approval.

Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Patriot Act as an example of "ordered liberty" during a speech to the Federalist Society, saying also that "there have been no abuses" of the law. His Department of Justice has also launched a website to answer critics. But potential for abuse, civil libertarians say, remains high.

Privacy groups are also quick to remind that these fights aren't limited to being free of government surveillance. And besides sins of commission like increased spying authority, there have been sins of omission by the administration as well. The focus on surveillance issues sometimes obscures that Bush has done virtually nothing to protect people from commercial incursions on privacy interests, says Schwartz. "Because of this lack of focus, we still lack privacy laws that the rest of the world has," he says, including health privacy laws.

Data mining--the monitoring of patterns of individual use within vast commercial databases, to build detailed profiles of identified individuals--has continued unabated, with little if any action taken against it by the administration. …