Always on the lookout for new ways to do things prohibited by the Constitution, our government has developed the “keyword warrant,” a document that makes it possible for them to spy on virtually everyone’s internet activity without their knowledge.
In December 2020, we learned that government spied on our internet usage in 2019 by tracking our website visits using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
Section 215 and other provisions of the PATRIOT Act were originally scheduled to expire on December 15, 2019, but in one of Washington’s classic year-end budget band-aids to avoid an imaginary government shutdown, a 90-day extension of the act was tucked inside a 2,000-page omnibus loaded with spending priorities that broke nearly every promise Trump and the Republican Party made in 2016.
As the new deadline of March 15, 2020 approached, Trump and the Republican Party recommitted themselves to making government spying on internet usage permanent. That attempt failed, which allowed Section 215 and other key parts of the PATRIOT Act to expire.
However, with the heat was off and no one looking, the Senate reauthorized the USA FREEDOM Act on May 14, 2020, which extended the domestic surveillance powers contained in the PATRIOT Act. This reauthorization gave the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies unlimited warrantless access to sensitive personal information, including internet browsing and search history, for national security investigations.
The USA FREEDOM Act originally became law in 2015 in response to Edward Snowden’s revelation about NSA spying; it was supposed to cut down on flagrant abuses of the PATRIOT Act by fixing the errors contained in Section 215 and prohibit bulk data collection.
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is where the NSA “found” its authority to gain access to “business records” and other “tangible things” deemed “relevant” to fighting terrorism, and using a broad interpretation of Section 215, the agency created justification for the abusive and unconstitutional spying revealed by Snowden.
Unfortunately, renewing the USA FREEDOM Act left Section 215 in force, which meant that authorities were still able to collect vast amounts of personal data, including internet browsing and search histories.
If you thought unreasonable search and seizure and the loss of due process was bad before, wait until you see government’s secret plan to use “keyword warrants” to get around the bulk data limitations of the PATRIOT Act in order to spy on us when we use the internet (Reason.com provided the frightening details in October 2021):
It’s been 20 years since 9/11, which means it’s also been 20 years since America’s public debates about government surveillance under laws like the PATRIOT Act. It’s a bit amusing to look back and see commentators clashing over hot-button topics like whether the government should have access to things like library records. Two decades, two (plus) wars, and too many exposed warrantless government surveillance programs later, the idea that the biggest threat to liberty is Uncle Sam scrounging around to find out who checked out chemistry books from a Connecticut branch library is almost charming.
We have surveillance fatigue. A lot of people just assume that everything they do online is immediately hoovered up and stored in some massive desert National Security Agency data center for eternity. It’s not a bad heuristic, but there are still some procedural hurdles for the feds to get their hands on what they want.
One of them was recently publicized in a series of court documents obtained by Forbes. It’s called a “keyword warrant,” and it’s basically an open request for information on anyone who searches for particular terms online. Instead of the government saying, “I want all of arson suspect John Doe’s Google searches,” it’s, “I want information on all the people who searched Google for ‘arson.'”
The problem is evident. In the first scenario, investigators have already determined a suspect based on some evidence that they present to a judge, the typical standard for requesting a search warrant. In the second scenario, the government is asking search engines to provide data that they can use for whatever reason. It’s an open invitation for a fishing expedition. And many innocent people could get caught in the net. (Emphasis mine)
In practice, keyword warrants can result in someone who has done nothing illegal to being swept up in a government investigation based solely on that person’s search engine history.
Think of everything you type into Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Do you want unelected and unaccountable government bureaucrats bent on destroying liberty making decisions about your intentions based on what you’ve entered in a search bar? Keyword warrants are effectively fishing expeditions, designed to make government spying easier while simultaneously avoiding that pesky Constitution.
When the FBI was questioned about spying on our internet and browsing history in 2019, the agency suggested that the practice was entirely consistent with its interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act:
“Section 215 has been an important tool used by the government to obtain this type of non-content information to combat cyber and other national security threats,” they said, referring to data about communications excluding the communications themselves.
“This type of non-content information can be obtained in a criminal investigation through the use of a grand jury subpoena, and we see no reason to prohibit the acquisition of the same type of information under Section 215 when investigating a threat to national security.”
On the subject of how the federal government is violating our constitutional rights under the PATRIOT Act, John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, once wrote that “[it] violates at least six of the ten original amendments known as the Bill of Rights — the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth amendments — and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth as well.”
If government’s secret plan to spy on our internet use via keyword warrants teaches us anything, it’s that the Republican/Democrat duopoly in Washington will manipulate and pervert seemingly clear legal standards and rules for the benefit of the state.
David Leach is the owner of the Strident Conservative. He holds people of every political stripe accountable for their failure to uphold conservative values, and he promotes those values instead of political parties.
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