San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the Department of Justice (DOJ) today for answers about "secret interpretations" of the USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law ten years ago today.

Several senators have warned that the DOJ is using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to support what government attorneys call a "sensitive collection program" that may be targeting large numbers of Americans. Section 215 allows for secret court orders to obtain "tangible things" when the FBI certifies they are relevant to a government investigation. The list of possible "tangible things" the government can obtain is seemingly limitless, and could include everything from driver's license records to Internet browsing patterns. Section 215 also limits the court's discretion to deny the order and prevents the recipient of an order from disclosing its existence.

Before the PATRIOT Act became law, the government could only obtain Section 215 orders for limited types of records and for suspects the government could demonstrate were agents of a foreign government. But the PATRIOT Act expanded the section's scope, increasing both the government's surveillance powers and the threat to citizens' civil liberties.

"In the last few months, senators have taken to the floor of Congress to warn that Americans would be stunned and angry about the government's interpretation of Section 215," said EFF Open Government Legal Fellow Mark Rumold. "The only way to ensure accountability is if citizens understand how the government is interpreting this section. The public deserves answers."

EFF's lawsuit comes after the DOJ failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on the interpretation and use of Section 215. The suit demands records describing the types of "tangible things" that have been collected so far, the legal basis for the "sensitive collection program," and information on the how many people have been affected by Section 215 orders.

"Senators have said publicly that the Justice Department is misleading the American people about the use of the PATRIOT Act, but the DOJ continues to hide this information from public scrutiny," said Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. "The government should follow the law and release this critically important information."

Separately, in New York today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a similar FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Justice also seeking the release of records related to Section 215.

For the full complaint:


Mark Rumold
   Open Government Legal Fellow
   Electronic Frontier Foundation

Jennifer Lynch
   Staff Attorney
   Electronic Frontier Foundation