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Tag: patriot act

Episode 46 – USA PATRIOT Act

by Thomas Riker

NSA data center in Bluffdale, UtahThe attacks on September 11th, 2001 deeply affected America and its citizens. In its aftermath came the USA PATRIOT act, a far-reaching piece of legislation that was passed both in the Senate and the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority. The act contained many provisions that expanded the scope of the government and its agencies in the hopes of catching terrorists, so as to prevent the next 9/11 from ever occurring. This podcast discusses the Patriot Act generally and its effects, mostly on regular American citizens, and raises questions about the debate between personal privacy and national security.


Ahmed, A., & Senzai, F. (2017, August 5). The USA Patriot Act: Impact on the Arab and Muslim American Community. Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

Duignan, B. (2020). Reauthorizations. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Jenks, R. (2001, December). The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. Center for Immigration Studies.

Staff, A.C.L.U. (2011). Surveillance Under the Patriot Act. American Civil Liberties Union.

Staff, A.C.L.U. (2015, May 12). End Mass Surveillance Under the Patriot Act. American Civil Liberties Union.

Staff, A.C.L.U. (2021). Surveillance Under the USA/PATRIOT Act. American Civil Liberties Union.

Welling, A. (2001, October 24). Man admits setting fire at curry eatery.

Audio Sources:

1* A story read by Rishabh Gharekhan taken from the website:

Welling, A. (2001, October 24). Man admits setting fire at curry eatery.

2* A story told to me by my AP English Language teacher during my senior year at Canisius High School, read by my friend Mia.  “Above the Clouds”

Image: NSA Data Center,” Cory Doctorow, Flickr CC BY

Little Brother: A Hyperbolic Representation of Security vs. Privacy

On page 91 in the novel, while the narrator, Marcus was in the Turkish Coffee shop, he was dumbfounded by the idea that based on the new Patriot act, people could track his purchases on his debit card. He posed the rhetorical question to the reader, “You think it’s no big deal maybe? What’s the problem with the government knowing when you buy coffee?” This is essence to me sums up the idea of privacy vs. security, because it shows how when taken to far, surveillance becomes utterly useless. There is no good that can come out of the fact that the government knows when you buy coffee. Under no circumstances would that ever become relevant in figuring out who terrorists and criminals are. Furthermore, even if it somehow contributed in the most minute way to a terrorist prediction algorithm, someone could just pay cash and get away with it anyway.

Anyone who is trying to plan some sort of nefarious attack is probably going to take the time to figure out what the government is tracking. For example, if the government tracks bank transactions worth more than 10,000 dollars, then a halfway smart criminal would make 20 small transactions worth 500$ each, and the only people that would get flagged would be innocent. If the government is tracking debit card purchases, then a criminal will just use cash. In the end, all this will do is lead to violations of the Bill of Rights and waste a huge amount of money creating a haystack with no needles in it. This is why this particular section in the book stood out to me.

Should We Mine Students’ Data?

In his essay entitled “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, Michael Morris argues that schools should surveil the online activities of their students in order to  predict and prevent acts of violence before they occur. Because all network traffic goes through the school’s systems, the IT department in a school can monitor the online behavior of any student, which certainly has the potential to help administrators watch for behavior indicative of intent to act, as well as identify at-risk individuals who managed to fly under the radar before. Morris argues that despite the intrusion of privacy, the monitoring system should be implemented because of its potential to prevent crime. Furthermore, he justifies the lack of privacy by arguing that individuals willingly give up personal information on social media and that companies already collect data for marketing purposes.

Although I do agree with the premise of doing whatever possible to save lives, I don’t agree with the blanket surveillance that Morris seeming to be advocating for. Ignoring the violations of privacy, I don’t believe that looking for patterns in online behavior is an efficient method of determining risk. There are bound to be many false positives from students who don’t actually pose any risk that would waste the school’s resources while they investigate, or worse, students who have malicious intent but don’t exhibit any observable patterns online would completely fly under the radar. In a similar situation, the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 which allowed public surveillance with the goal to prevent acts of terrorism. However, out of all of the criminal referrals that resulted from investigations, none of them were for terrorism. Acts of terror obviously still occur in the country despite the FBI’s resources, which leads me to question the effectiveness if implemented by a school system. I believe that a more effective method would be targeted investigations of online behavior based on tips from people, which would allow schools to focus their resources in a more efficient manner.

Is There an Answer?

Looking at this display from the Newseum, the thing that stood out most to me on the board was the person who wrote that they would sacrifice “some privacy.” Personally, this makes me wonder what part of privacy this person was referring to. Were they referring to texts, phone calls, emails, their location, or something else? Where is the line drawn? When does safety overrule privacy, and when does privacy once again become the priority?

It seems to me that there is a very fine line between what we are and are not willing to sacrifice for safety. For example, one person wrote that they wouldn’t want the government to have access to their location. Another person wrote that they would sacrifice “as much as necessary to feel safe.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to define an amount of privacy that everyone is willing give up for safety’s sake. Something that makes one person feel safer, such as mass surveillance of internet search histories, may cause someone else to feel less safe and uncomfortable. In cases like those, who do we choose? Either choice causes someone to feel unsafe. Which person’s safety is of a higher value?

Perhaps the answer is that there is no answer. Perhaps it is impossible to have everyone feel safe at the same time. Some will claim that mass surveillance and legislation like the Patriot Act make people safer. They help the government to catch terrorists and others who intend to inflict harm. However, these methods make some people feel less safe. If the government or anyone else was to abuse this power, or misuse this data, there could be serious repercussions. Is there a line that can clearly be defined; this is an acceptable invasion of privacy, but this is going too far? Until we can answer this, the debate of security vs. privacy will continue.

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