U.S. Used Patriot Act to Gather Logs of Website Visitors

Enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits the F.B.I. to obtain a secret court order to collect any business records deemed relevant to a national security inquiry — a very easy standard for investigators to meet. The legal authority for it and two other surveillance-related investigative tools lapsed for new inquiries earlier this year, although the F.B.I. can still use them for pre-existing cases.Section 215 has been at the center of repeated fights over the balance between empowering national security investigators to detect potential threats and preserving Americans’ privacy and freedom to read what they want or call other people without fear of government observation. In the Bush years, civil liberties advocates raised alarms over the possibility that the F.B.I. might use it to monitor people’s library records. In 2013, an uproar erupted over the disclosure that the National Security Agency had been secretly using it to collect bulk logs of all Americans’ phone calls.
Demands to ban using Section 215 for library records gradually faded — it appeared that in practice, the F.B.I. was not using it to monitor what books people had checked out — and Congress ended the use of Section 215 for bulk collection of calling data in 2015. But new tensions have emerged over the extent to which the F.B.I. could use that law to gather logs of people’s web browsing activities, as opposed to using warrants — a tool that requires investigators to first be able to produce evidence that a person probably engaged in wrongdoing.
In May, 59 senators voted to bar the use of Section 215 to collect internet search terms or web browsing activity, but negotiations broke down in the House. During that period, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and one of the sponsors of the proposal ban, wrote to the director of national intelligence seeking clarity about any such use.Six months later, the Trump administration finally replied — initially, it turned out, in a misleading way.

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