The Patriot Act: A Retrospective On A Major Mistake That Damaged US Civil Rights

In the decade since it was passed, many Americans have come to question the wisdom of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that some argue that ignores the fourth amendment to the Constitution. Passed in 2001 in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act has generated tremendous controversy with regard to the security and privacy of American citizens.

As noted by NBC News, the act vastly increased the power of the government to investigate the day-to-day lives and activities of ordinary citizens. On the other hand, many argue that while the Patriot Act may have negative effects on personal privacy and liberty, it has prevented a number of terrorist attacks by apprehending individuals who would otherwise slip through our security net.

The question to consider is how much personal privacy and freedom we are – or should be – willing to give up in order to ensure greater security, as well as whether the Patriot Act should be revised to minimize its intrusion into our lives. Those who denounce the patriot act as an unacceptable infringement on personal liberties will often quote Benjamin Franklin, who said “Those who would give up their liberty, to gain some temporary safety, deserve neither safety or liberty.”

NSA Director speaking about security. [Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Quickly ratified and signed in October of 2001, according to the EFF stated goal of the Patriot Act was to prevent further terrorism in the United States. Even at the time, there was a great deal of dissent as to whether this legislation was necessary, prudent, or even constitutional. Many legislators and private citizens were indignant over many provisions contained within the act.

For instance, this law allows authorities to carry out what are referred to as “sneak and peek” searches in which an individual’s property can be searched without any prior notification or the issuance of a standard warrant. In addition, information sharing between various government agencies regarding the private information of citizens has been made much easier and much more common.

Wiretapping, which was restricted by warrants to a single communications device – such as a particular phone – has been expanded to the extent that the government is now allowed to tap into every form of communication a citizen or noncitizen uses. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Patriot Act is that it allows the government to indefinitely detain an individual without charge or trial – and this is the case even if the “suspect” is not considered a terrorist.

Any noncitizen or legal immigrant can be subjected to unlimited imprisonment without access to an attorney. All of these powers allow the government to engage in what is referred to as data mining – the massive collecting of detailed information about citizens and noncitizens alike.

Data mining is one of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act. This is because it easily can lead to invasions of privacy that most people would consider unconstitutional. During data mining, information regarding American citizens is collected in huge amounts by examining their Internet history.

This allows the government to determine things like their sexual orientation, political affiliation and even their location throughout the day. Because – from the government’s perspective – this is not search and seizure as such, the authorities do not believe it violates the fourth amendment. But by carrying out this data mining, government agencies can create personal profiles on every American citizen.

Under the authority of the Patriot Act, they can, in turn, use these profiles by comparing them against known terrorists so as to predict – in theory – future terrorist behavior. Of course, this information is not being gathered by human beings. The vast quantity of data is instead being handled by computers automatically. Even so, human beings have access to the resulting extracted information, which could easily be viewed as a terrible invasion of privacy and a threat to freedom.

[Featured Image by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images]

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