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The Patriot Act, Cyber-Edition

Congress is currently considering new cybersecurity measures, including some proposed by the Obama administration.
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October 24, 2011

This week marks 10 years since the Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The ACLU is hosting a blog series that will address some of the sweeping changes to surveillance laws over the past decade. To learn more about the Patriot Act, visit

Congress is currently considering new cybersecurity measures, including some proposed by the Obama administration. But the plans threaten to make the same mistakes as the Patriot Act, which has its 10th anniversary this Wednesday.

The new proposals would sweep up huge amounts of personal information about innocent Americans, simultaneously violating privacy rights and overwhelming the government’s counterterrorism efforts with too much data. Despite the fact that many of the government’s current surveillance practices remain shrouded in secrecy, it is trying to get even greater power to watch and listen.

An op-ed by ACLU National Security Project Senior Staff Attorney Zachary Katznelson, published Sunday in McClatchy newspapers around the country, warns of the flaws in the current and proposed systems.

Once more, information gathering would be incredibly broad, sweeping in law-abiding Americans against whom there is not even a hint of alleged wrongdoing. In the name of making us safe, we once again face the prospect of flooding our systems with excessive information, and hamstringing the officials trying to protect us.

There cannot be a meaningful debate about these policies until the public knows what the government is already doing with our private information. The government currently collects reams of data from private companies, some demanded, some handed over voluntarily. But we have no idea how much or how often, or maybe even more importantly, what is done with all these private details once they are in government hands. That is all kept secret.

As citizens, we deserve to know what the companies holding our financial details, communications records, and other personal information are doing with it — and what the government is requiring of them. For that reason, the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about how corporations and the government already pass our private information back and forth. To date, no government agency has revealed anything in response. Before Washington asks for even more power to sweep in data, surely it should disclose how much it takes in now. We must avoid the Patriot Act’s pitfalls: a civil-liberties-defying policy that might actually make things worse.

The cybersecurity policy eventually implemented will have a direct effect on all Americans. You can take action by telling your representatives to make sure that whatever the government does respects our privacy rights and the constitution.

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