OFF THE WIRE
By Margaret Rock
Two civil liberties groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Justice over its collection of phone and computer data under the Patriot Act, joining a growing chorus of concern over the legislation's reach
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, asking the DoJ and Federal Bureau of Investigation to turn over information related to their requests for "any tangible things" covered by a section of the Patriot Act, which turns 10 years old today.
"Any tangible things," in section 215 of the counter-terrorism measure, includes books, records, papers, and documents related to a terrorism investigation, a list the EFF characterized as "seemingly endless," with the potential to extend to Internet browsing and other digital data. The EFF filed suit in California after the DoJ declined to turn over information targeting the data-collection program that the agency submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.
The information requested could be "conceivably anything, and that's the big problem -- we don't know how the FBI, DOJ, or the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) have interpreted the provision," said Mark Rumold, EFF's open government legal fellow.
During the first three months of 2011, about 80 percent of the Section 215 requests were for Internet records, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, shining some light on the volume of activity.
In addition, Google Thursday reported an increase in U.S. government requests for user data, revealing in its Transparency Report that government inquiries shot up by one-third from January to June of this year.
The Patriot Act has been modified and renewed several times since it passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. During this summer's most recent debate on the renewal, two senators received classified briefings that the Justice Department is following a "secret" interpretation of the legislation, but they couldn't reveal details because the information is classified. Despite these complaints, Congress voted to extend the law into 2014.
EFF wants information on the Section 215 requests and a change in the Patriot Act, Rumold said.
"To our knowledge, no one receiving a 215 order has ever attempted to challenge it, and 215 orders are accompanied by gag orders, so their existence can never be revealed," he said. "So those two factors severely limit our ability to directly challenge the government's use."
The civil liberties groups' opposition may also be fueled by other governmental proposals in the offing, which they believe would operate in a similar fashion, without disclosing information to the public.
Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and the Obama administration announced a push for quick cyber-security legislation to address threats to industrial and government networks.
The government officials met to discuss "the need for prompt legislative action to ensure the U.S. government has the authorities it needs to keep the nation safe," according to White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
"The White House's cyber-security proposal right now makes the Patriot Act look quaint," said Michelle Richardson, who works for the ACLU in Washington. "And really, the collection that it would allow would really outpace anything that's probably being done under the Patriot Act."
The EFF, ACLU, lawmakers and other who have spoken out requesting more information about the legislation will likely continue to question the extent of its powers, especially as the government seeks to build upon them.