U.S. Used Patriot Act to Gather Logs of Website Visitors
A disclosure sheds new light on a high-profile national security law as lawmakers prepare to revive a debate over it in the Biden administration.
The government has interpreted a high-profile provision of the Patriot Act as empowering F.B.I. national security investigators to collect logs showing who has visited particular web pages, documents show.
But the government stops short of using that law to collect the keywords people submit to internet search engines because it considers such terms to be content that requires a warrant to gather, according to letters produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The disclosures come at a time when Congress is struggling with new proposals to limit the law, known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The debate ran aground in the spring amid erratic messages from President Trump, but is expected to resume after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes the oath of office in January.
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.