EFF, ACLU file lawsuits over Patriot Act data collection

Section 215 of the law allows the FBI to obtain 'any tangible things' related to terrorism investigations

Two civil liberties groups have filed lawsuits asking the U.S. Department of Justice to detail its collection of electronic data and other information under the 10-year-old counterterrorism law, the USA Patriot Act.

The lawsuits, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, seek to have the DOJ and its U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation branch turn over all information related to information requests allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 allows the FBI to ask for a court order to obtain "any tangible things," including books, records, papers, and documents, related to a terrorism investigation.

The groups filed two lawsuits Wednesday: The EFF sued the DOJ in California, while the ACLU sued the DOJ in New York.

Section 215 allows for "seemingly limitless" requests for data by the FBI, including, potentially, Internet browsing patterns and other digital data, the EFF said in a press release. In June, the EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request targeting the data-collection program, but the DOJ has declined to turn over information, the group said in its complaint.

The ACLU filed a similar FOIA request in May.

The information requested could be "conceivably anything, and that's the big problem -- we don't know how the FBI, DOJ, or the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] have interpreted the provision, said Mark Rumold, EFF's open government legal fellow.

EFF is concerned that the FBI has "taken what Congress and the public believed was a narrow grant of power and secretly expanded it," Rumold added.

During the first three months of 2011, about 80 percent of the Section 215 requests were for Internet records, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, have raised concerns in recent months about the FBI's use of Section 215.

The senators have warned that U.S. residents "would be stunned and angry about the government's interpretation of Section 215," Rumold, said. "The only way to ensure accountability is if citizens understand how the government is interpreting this section. The public deserves answers."

The DOJ declined to comment on the lawsuits.

EFF wants information on the Section 215 requests and a change in the Patriot Act, Rumold said. Congress has extended Section 215 of the law into 2014. "To our knowledge, no one receiving a 215 order has ever attempted to challenge it, and 215 orders are accompanied by gag orders, so their existence can never be revealed," he said. "So those two factors severely limit our ability to directly challenge the government's use."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityprivacylegislationU.S. Department of JusticeElectronic Frontier FoundationAmerican Civil Liberties UnionU.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationRon WydenMark Udall

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