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Palomar Observatory

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Welcome to the machine



“The fact is that anyone can read the plain text of the Patriot Act, and yet many members of Congress have no idea how the law is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch, because that interpretation is classified.
“It’s almost as if there were two Patriot Acts, and many members of Congress have not read the one that matters.
“Our constituents, of course, are totally in the dark. Members of the public have no access to the secret legal interpretations, so they have no idea what their government believes the law actually means.”
— Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, in a Senate floor speech Thursday

One of the biggest disappointments of the Obama Administration has been the continuation of Bush era policies that have the potential to further erode privacy and civil liberties in this country. This week Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and New Mexico Senator Mark Udall raised the alarm about the recent extension of the Patriot Act and hinted that Obama's Justice Department might have even eclipsed the past administration at its increased snooping and cavalier disregard for certain rights we have long held dear in this country.

“When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.” Senator Ron Wyden

Because the Patriot Act was shrouded in so much secrecy that Americans don't even know what it entails, it is hard to speculate about the scope of the governmental surveillance that is raising the Senator's concern. Even our Senators and Congressmen are not allowed to know what the government's interpretation is, except for the members of one small select committee. But it seems to revolve around Section 215. This section allows investigators to "seize any "tangible things" they deem to be relevant to an investigation. They are not required to provide evidence demonstrating probable cause, as would be the case for a conventional search warrant. Tangible things can entail anything from phone records to hospital records, and can belong to third parties rather than terrorism suspects themselves."

According to Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute, the Justice Department employs a legal argument known as the "hybrid theory" that opens access to "pen registers," or data that allows investigators to roughly monitor someone's physical location through their cell phone. This ability to track a person's location, fused with the ability to obtain huge amounts of private records, could allow the government to know where many different people are at a given moment. It is possible that the use of the hybrid theory has allowed the government to spy on a broad swath of the American public, with no connection to terrorism, through use of "data mining" technology.

Some assert that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.

Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.

“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Wired's Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

Wyden offered an amendment that would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” It refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.

Udall warned about the government’s “unfettered” access to bulk citizen data, like “a cellphone company’s phone records.” In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, Udall urged Congress to restrict the Patriot Act’s business-records seizures to “terrorism investigations” — something the counterterrorism measure has never required in its nearly 10-year existence.

The government thinks that it is much ado about nothing. Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said that Congressional oversight committees and a special panel of national security judges — known as the FISA Court — were aware of how the executive branch was interpreting and using surveillance laws.

“These authorities are also subject to extensive oversight from the FISA Court, from Congress, from the executive branch,” Mr. Boyd said.

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I worry about this law and I worry about this government. Creating an indeterminate war against an indeterminate enemy for an indeterminate period that allows to the suspension of rights to privacy, fair process and court ordered warrants seems like a fast track to a Kafkaesque police state. With the new DARPA style data mining technology, the government can not only monitor your communications but know your geo-location, friends you are associating with and brand of aftershave. What once was an emergency bill designed to ferret out terrorism is now an excuse for a wholesale spying operation on the American public.

Of course the standard response for many of my fellow citizens is "I have nothing to hide, let them look." And guess what my fellow citizens, they will.

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2 comments:

Marie said...

Actually tried to respond to the post about your genealogy search - not sure why sometimes there is no way to respond - so I am doing it on this post instead. Hope you don't mind . . . I find hearing about your search very interesting.

I have been obsessed recently with searching-out my ancestors and recently finished a 320 page history/cookbook for my Italian side (mother) using Blurb. I made good use of a two-week free pass on Ancestor.com and found lots of good info (ship manifests, etc.) and wondered if you use their site?

I would like to join to continue to work on my dad's Irish side (I have very little info on them) but want to be sure I have time to donate to the search to wisely use the time I pay for.

Then I will dive into my husband's side which should be more intense because there is no info on his dad's side. Twenty years ago I asked my husband's grandfather (who was in his 70s at the time) what the family ancestry was - he replied, "We are all from Colorado."

Heard that Fallbrook has a genealogy group that meets at the library. Have you been to a meeting?

Blue Heron said...

I have not. Thought about using the 2 weeks free on Ancestry as well - they are so darn expensive!

best,

R