What Is Privacy? What You Should Know About US Privacy Laws

Protecting individual privacy rights while also guarding the online safety of others, especially children, presents a tricky challenge. Beginning with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the United States government enacted numerous laws granting itself the authority to spy on both American and non-US citizens. Today, we examine four of the Acts forming the root of the US government's surveillance tree.

1. The Patriot Act

Even though many people acted as if Snowden's big reveal in 2013 was the first time they heard of government surveillance, "The Simpsons Movie" used it as a plot point back in 2007. Even that pop culture prop came six years after President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law on October 26, 2001. Insisting that the Act respects the Constitution's guarantee of civil liberties, Bush claimed the Patriot Act represented a powerful tool in the fight against domestic terrorism. Let us first look at the Fourth Amendment, one of the civil liberties Bush insisted the Patriot Act does not infringe upon.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment states that people have the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…" It requires any member of law enforcement to obtain a search warrant, issued by a judge, that describes the place to be searched and the item(s) and person(s) to be seized. The law enforcement agent must also prove probable cause that the person facing a search engages in criminal activity, and then report the results of the search back to the court.

The Patriot Act in Action

The Patriot Act allows the FBI to appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court (FISC) to receive permission to search for "any tangible things" connected to a suspect. The FISA Court grants permission as long as the FBI says that the search is to protect against terrorism or spying. There is no probable cause requirement, and even those participating in peaceful, public protest become targets. The Act allows surveillance of books, computers, documents, even the records of businesses and public institutions. Additionally, it forbids ISPs from informing you that the FBI searched your records. Finally, Section 213 allows the FBI to perform secret searches of your home or business.

2. The Communications Decency Act

Also known as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the CDA allows government regulation and prohibition of telecommunications media and devices with the original goal of regulating "indecency" in cyberspace. The CDA represents one of the earliest attempts at government regulation of the Internet. It provides immunity for ISPs, protecting them against third party content. This means that an ISP is not responsible if a child logs onto the family computer and accesses pornography. The Act also protects ISPs that either restrict, or provide the means to restrict, certain material. Controversy over the CDA began on day one, with suits filed against certain provisions of the Act on the same day they went into effect. These provisions criminalized transmitting obscene material to minors via the Internet. They were struck down in court, with that decision upheld by the Supreme Court.

3. The USA Freedom Act

The USA Freedom Act of 2015 restored Patriot Act provisions that expired on June 1, the day before the USA Freedom Act passed. Sponsors originally introduced the Act in 2013, in response to the Snowden leak, as an attempt to restore Americans' trust in the government. Title I of the USA Freedom Act bans the bulk collection practices permitted under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Instead, the Act requires an application process to obtain call records that more closely resembles the promises of the Fourth Amendment. It also requires "the prompt destruction" of call records deemed not relevant to an investigation. Title IV helps reform the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, appointing amicus curiae (friend of the court) to assist the FISA Court. This limited role includes providing assistance on relevant legal arguments. Title VII concerns the targeting of non-US citizens, with provisions on surveillance when these foreign targets enter the country as well as when they leave it.

President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law in 1998. Although ostensibly enacted to defeat copyright pirates, many people believe that DMCA actually poses more of a threat to fair use. Modified numerous times since its unanimous passing in 1998, the Act addresses issues such as Internet postings of short portions of film or literary works. Numerous lawsuits rely on DMCA, as well. For example, Viacom sued YouTube and Google in 2007 for copyright infringement. Google claimed that DMCA's safe harbor provision protected it from liability. The courts agreed, and neither site was liable for its users committing copyright infringement.


The same technologies that make our lives easier also simplify government surveillance. It goes beyond government snooping, though. Corporations gather data about you for targeted sales, even selling your information to other entities (see this article about data mining. Even with so many laws determined to limit your privacy, you are not helpless. Using a VPN each time you connect to the Internet allows you to browse in private, shielded from both hackers and government eyes.

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