Saturday, August 27, 2005

What Are You Reading?

The FBI wants to know.
The American Civil Liberties Union today disclosed that the FBI has used a controversial Patriot Act power to demand records from an organization that possesses "a wide array of sensitive information about library patrons, including information about the reading materials borrowed by library patrons and about Internet usage by library patrons." The FBI demand was disclosed in a new lawsuit filed in Connecticut, which remains under a heavy FBI gag order.

The lawsuit challenges the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to demand a range of personal records without court approval, such as the identity of a person who has visited a particular Web site on a library computer, or who has engaged in anonymous speech on the Internet. The Patriot Act dramatically expands the NSL power by permitting the FBI to demand records of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
What makes the stakes particularly high in this case is that the NSL provision allows the government to demand records "without court approval." That the government has been able to obtain information on persons under investigation is nothing new. It’s the removal of judicial oversight from the process of information gathering that has civil liberties groups up in arms. With good cause I might add.

Although details are still scant, the NYTs fleshes out the story here. A hearing on the gag order is slated for Wednesday. If the gag order is lifted the facts of this particular case, filed on August 9th, will see the light of day.

Only the most radical civil libertarian would disregard the need for increased security measures in light of the proven threat of terrorist groups. That said, endowing the government with an unfettered right to pry into our private business is an unacceptable solution to the problem. When Congress returns from its summer recess and begins to hammer out the details of the Patriot Act, the implications of the Government’s newfound power need to receive the public scrutiny they deserve. Democracy that operates in the shadows isn’t really democracy at all.

You can read a censored version of the ACLU’s complaint in the Connecticut lawsuit here.

--Matthew McCoy