The Patriot Act has been extended with hours to spare, and will soon be signed electronically by President Obama, who is currently at the G8 conference in Paris, France.
But the vast majority of those who voted to extend the bill may not know the full extent to which the powers are being used -- and abused -- by government authorities.
The classified interpretations of how the Patriot Act can be used to access wide-ranging "dragnets" -- as Wired described -- to collect vast quantities of information on citizens outside the perceived breadth of the law.
While the law says one thing, certain government departments have reinterpreted the Patriot Act for their own benefit.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said that, while under official secrecy legislation he could not disclose the full classified interpretations; the government is operating on a far wider range of what is written in law.
"We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says," Wyden said.
As a member of the Senate intelligence committee, he is privy to the full interpretation of the Patriot Act by government agencies, like the U.S. Department of Justice; but is unable to disclose it publicly.
Wyden, along with three other Democratic senators, have been promised the right to hear the "expansive Justice Department interpretation of the information collection the Patriot Act allows".
An amendment offered by Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), which would have forced the Attorney General into disclosing publicly the government departments' interpretation of the Act, however, was withdrawn after the hearing of the interpretation was allowed.
One of the key issues in the Patriot Act, that seems to be the crux of the problem for Wyden, is the effect it has on businesses, clinics and medical facilities and private enterprises -- including banks and universities.
According to Wired:
"Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department's official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before.
The court didn't reject a single request. But it "modified" those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway."
Though it is unclear in what form these reinterpretations of the powers take, one can guess that it goes above and beyond the legal framework set out by the language in the Patriot Act, to levels almost unfathomable.
Udall said in a statement, regarding the government's unfettered access to bulk citizen data like "a cellphone company's phone records", could indicate the very breadth of how far this interpretation could go.
If so, an entire customer base of a cell network provider -- like T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint, for example --could be collected by U.S. authorities for widespread data mining. Currently, the perception is that law enforcement would would have to separately apply to the FISA court for each individuals' data.
Europe is not exempt from these powers either, as previously discovered in ZDNet's USA PATRIOT Act series. The series details in minute detail how the US government can invoke the Patriot Act to request wholly owned subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies to hand over European data, as well as from further afield, for inspection by U.S. authorities.
If this is the case, then the Patriot Act that will shortly be signed back into law and extended, and will have further wide-ranging consequences for those home and abroad.
- ZDNet's USA PATRIOT Act series
- CBS News: Congress sends Patriot Act extension bill to Obama
- Privacy is innately flawed: 'Nothing to hide' does not exist
- If you have something to hide from the government, don't use Dropbox
- USA PATRIOT Act and the controversy of Canada
- Safe Harbor: Why EU data needs ‘protecting’ from US law
- Case study: How the USA PATRIOT Act can be used to access EU data
- USA PATRIOT Act: The myth of a secure European cloud