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Privacy Watchdogs Weigh In On Electronic Surveillance

Posted by iTech - 2005-12-17

As the U.S. Senate threatens a filibuster, dozens of groups and newspaper editorials around the nation are questioning the government's ability to electronically monitor citizens and enter personal information into databases.

At a press conference this week the Electronic Privacy Information Center joined dozens joined an FBI spokesperson, conservative groups, Veterans for Peace, Senate Republicans, localities, medical associations and others supporting Senate-proposed reforms to the law, passed shortly after Sept. 11.

The Patriot Act, which gives government the power to monitor e-mail, voicemail, bank records, business records, library checkouts and Web surfing, is set to expire Dec. 31.

In the time since the original was passed, investigators have run up against court and challenges and public criticism for trying to track people using cell phone signals, requesting Internet activity and user logs from public libraries, culling information from Internet providers and searching property without proving there's a reason and without informing subjects for months.

The Senate is currently trying to curb the power of the Patriot Act by blocking efforts to make parts permanent and by trying to ensure that those subject to investigation maintain rights to due process.

The conference report (most recent compromise) they're objecting to includes expansion of surveillance capabilities by allowing the government to monitor foreigners for up to one year. U.S. investigators are currently supposed to show that foreigners under investigation are agents of another government in order to monitor them, and the time limit is now 90 days.

Critics of the Patriot Act are complaining that the government is so secretive about its use of the act, there's no way to gauge if, when and how much privacy and civil liberties are being violated. EPIC and the American Civil Liberties have gone to court to get the number of library searches declassified. It turns out there have been hundreds. There have also been tens of thousands of Americans under investigation without the burden of proof required before terrorists killed thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

One Patriot Act clause being debated is whether it should be a federal crime, punishable by death, to attack someone with a weapon near areas (ie. transportation hubs) that are key to the nation's infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is arguing its support for the provisions on a new Web site (http://www.lifeandliberty.gov/)

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