Can the FBI Monitor Your Web Browsing Without a Warrant?
EFF Demands Answers from DOJ about PATRIOT Act Surveillance
Washington, DC - Today the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI and other offices of the US Department of Justice, seeking the release of documents that would reveal whether the government has been using the USA PATRIOT Act to spy on Internet users' reading habits without a search warrant.
At issue is PATRIOT Section 216, which expanded the government's authority to conduct surveillance in criminal investigations using pen registers or trap and trace devices ("pen-traps"). Pen-traps collect information about the numbers dialed on a telephone but do not record the actual content of phone conversations. Because of this limitation, court orders authorizing pen-trap surveillance are easy to get -- instead of having to show probable cause, the government need only certify relevance to its investigation. Also, the government never has to inform people that they are or were the subjects of pen-trap surveillance.
PATRIOT expanded pen-traps to include devices that monitor Internet communications. But the line between non-content and content is a lot blurrier online than it is on phone networks. The DOJ has said openly that the new definitions allow pen-traps to collect email and IP addresses. However, the DOJ has not been so forthcoming about web surveillance. It won't reveal whether it believes URLs can be collected using pen-traps, despite the fact that URLs clearly reveal content by identifying the web pages being read. EFF made its FOIA request specifically to gain access to documents that might reveal whether the DOJ is using pen-traps to monitor web browsing.
"It's been over three years since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, and the DOJ still hasn't answered the public's simple question: 'Can you see what we're reading on the Web without probable cause?'" said Kevin Bankston, EFF Staff Attorney and Bruce J. Ennis Equal Justice Works Fellow. "Much of PATRIOT is coming up for review this year, but we can never have a full and informed debate of the issues when the DOJ won't explain how it has been using these new surveillance powers."
The law firm of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary assisted EFF in preparing the FOIA request and will help with any litigation if the DOJ fails to respond.
Attorney, Equal Justice Works / Bruce J. Ennis Fellow
Electronic Frontier Foundation