Surveillance & Privacy
In the wake of 9/11, mass surveillance has become one of the U.S. government’s principal strategies for protecting national security. Over the past decade, the government has asserted sweeping power to conduct dragnet collection and analysis of innocent Americans’ telephone calls and e-mails, web browsing records, financial records, credit reports, and library records. The government has also asserted expansive authority to monitor Americans’ peaceful political and religious activities.
But this government surveillance activity is not directed solely at suspected terrorists and criminals. It is directed at all of us. Increasingly, the government is engaged in warrantless surveillance that vacuums up sensitive information about innocent people. And this surveillance takes place in secret, with little or no oversight by the courts, by Congress, or by the public.
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Using their power to collect massive amounts of private communications and data, agencies like the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) apply computer programs to draw links and make predictions about people’s behavior. Tracking people two, three, four steps removed from the original surveillance target, they build “communities of interest” and construct maps of our associations and activities.
With this sensitive data, the government can compile vast dossiers about innocent people. The data sits indefinitely in government databases, and the names of many innocent Americans end up on bloated and inaccurate watch lists that affect whether we can fly on commercial airlines, whether we can renew our passports, whether we are called aside for “secondary screening” at airports and borders, and even whether we can open bank accounts.
Dragnet surveillance undermines the right to privacy and the freedoms of speech, association, and religion.
Spy Files: Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined. The FBI, the intelligence agencies, the military, state and local police, private companies, and even firemen and emergency medical technicians are gathering incredible amounts of detailed information about us.
Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT Act: Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the "USA/Patriot Act," an overnight revision of the nation's surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): On July 10, 2008 President Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA). Until Congress enacted the FAA, FISA generally prohibited the government from conducting electronic surveillance without first obtaining an individualized order from the FISA court. The new law gives the court established by FISA an extremely limited role in overseeing the government’s surveillance activities.