In one of its final acts of 2005, Congress was expected to renew the Patriot Act, the law passed after 9/11 that gave the government more leeway to investigate terrorism-related cases. Key provisions of the law allowing the government to seize electronic records expired Dec. 31.
The renewal without significant changes has come amid controversy triggered by the revelation last fall that the FBI may have illegally obtained customer data from businesses.
Between 2002 and 2004, FBI agents took procedural shortcuts at least a dozen times when they used provisions of the Patriot Act, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit research organization. EPIC obtained the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The documents detail 13 FBI internal investigations into agent misconduct. According to the documents, in one terrorism-related investigation, an agent obtained financial information from a company without legally obtaining a National Security Letter, a mechanism by which investigators demand data from companies or individuals. (Recipients of National Security Letters are forbidden by law to tell anyone that they have received one.)
The Washington Post reported last year that the FBI issues more than 30,000 National Security Letters a year.
The FBI called the violations administrative errors. Regardless of the reason, the bureau’s shortcuts highlight the need for companies that share customer information with investigators to do so cautiously, says Marcia Hofmann, EPIC staff counsel. (For more on how to manage FBI requests, read “What to Do When Uncle Sam Wants Your Data.” Find the link to this story at www.cio.com/010106.)
The violations indicate that legislative oversight is necessary to minimize abuse, Hofmann says.”When a law isn’t functioning, Congress needs to amend it, ” she says. The Patriot Act most likely will continue to be controversial, with proponents arguing that it is needed to fight terrorism, while critics contend that the loss of civil liberties is too high a price. At press time, Congress was trying to reach a compromise on restricting the use of National Security Letters and trying to agree on appropriate levels of oversight for the practice.