US Patriot Act Replaced To Limit Online Snooping

John Lister's picture

President Obama has signed a law that will limit the government's power to collect data from the public's online and telephone activities. The USA Freedom Act should make it harder for officials to simply collect data in bulk.

The Act replaces the measures in the 2001 Patriot Act, which extended the government's surveillance powers as a response to the September 11 attacks. That led to the National Security Agency launching a program by which it effectively collected as much data as possible and held on to it so that it could then look back for details on particular individuals as and when they fell under suspicion.

The new law isn't primarily about the content of phone calls and emails. Instead its about metadata, which means data about data. In this case it refers to details such as who made a call or sent an email, who was the recipient, when the call was made or email sent, and how long a call lasted.

Bulk Data Collection Outlawed

Under the NSA program, telecommunications companies such as phone companies and Internet providers would routinely hand this metadata over in bulk. The Supreme Court recently ruled that such collection was an unconstitutional violation of the right to privacy. (Source:

With the new rules, the telecommunications companies must hold on to the metadata. Security and law enforcement officials will have to get a court order before the telecommunications company must hand over relevant data. As a general principle, the court order will have to relate to specific information and investigators will only get the relevant files. The order will name either an individual, an online account, or an electronic device.

"Back Door" Claims Still Alarm Some

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) notes some key elements of the Patriot Act will remain in force. Officials will retain the right to monitor suspected terrorists even if they can't prove a connection to a specific terror group. They'll also still be able to examine a suspect's business and travel records. (Source:

Critics of government surveillance have welcomed the new laws but say they fear other activities could undermine the changes. Some have expressed fears that government agencies may have pressured tech firms into building "back doors" into online software that allow security staff to monitor online activity and communications as it happens, meaning there's no need to ask for data later on.

What's Your Opinion?

Were politicians right to change the law in this way? Did the National Security Agency go too far in collecting and holding data in bulk? Or do the new rules risk making life easier for criminals and would-be terrorists?

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couchmt_4698's picture

The 'data' gathered under the original Patriot Act was necessary to assist in finding the proverbial 'needle in a haystack'. It was merely one of the tools in the NSA's arsenal to help prevent terrorists' attacks on the U.S., not to spy on innocent citizens who have nothing to hide. Only when possible connections between known or suspected terrorists, foreign or home-grown, were found was further investigation authorized under procedures as provided in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). Tying the hands of the agency in this fashion is playing right into the hands of the nation's adversaries. God help us!

pctyson's picture

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety"

Our countries founding fathers had twice the wisdom that our present day politicians and constituents possess. How much government intrusion should we allow into our lives under the guise of "the safety of the citizens"? At what point do we cease to call the U.S. a democracy? Due to all of the rules and regulations that have been put in place "to protect us", we have already created a corrupt bureaucracy. Those who can afford to pay under the table for the rules to be bent do so while the working middle class suffers. Do you really naively trust the government and its politicians to use the data and conversations exclusively for "honorable" purposes? If I had access to this data do you know how much money I could make in the stock market just by knowing who CEO's of major companies are in contact with? And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

couchmt_4698's picture

He was writing about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly's acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.

The above quotation has often been misused by detractors of the Patriot Act as it is not a pro-privacy quotation. If anything, it's a pro-taxation and pro-defense spending quotation.

What I said above stems not from 'naive trust', but from knowledge. As for 'data and conversations', conversations are not kept. And as for how much money one could make in the stock market, if one had made investments based on some of the contacts CEO's of major companies had prior to and during the 2008 financial crisis, then they could possibly have lost everything, so that could work both ways.