Letters between the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and Senator Ron Wyden confirm that the United States government has used Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect web browsing information via a FISA court order. Specifically, the DNI – John Ratcliffe – wrote to Senator Wyden that Section 215 of the Patriot Act had been used once in 2019 to identify which IP addresses “in a specified foreign country” had been logged visiting “a single, identified U.S. web page.” The DNI did not deign to include any information on whether or not Section 215 of the Patriot Act was used to collect web browsing information in any previous year. Reading between the lines, it’s reasonable to assume that it has been.
Director of National Intelligence admits the US has used Patriot Act to collect web browsing information
The DNI’s letters were sent in response to an inquiry sent by Senator Ron Wyden earlier this year when Section 215 of the Patriot Act was up for renewal in Congress. Back in May 2020, Senator Mitch McConnell sought to formalize the use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to seek web browsing information with an amendment. Some noted that the existing language of Section 215 could already theoretically be used to seek web browsing information and that’s why Senator Wyden formally inquired to the DNI whether the Patriot Act had ever been used to collect web browsing information before.
In the response, the DNI noted that they did not use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to find out who searched for what particular search term in 2019. Of course, this is because Google acquiesces and provides the IP addresses that have searched a particular keyword to law enforcements when faced with a warrant even without the Patriot Act.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act isn’t currently active, but it’s expected to come up for renewal again in 2021 under the Biden administration. Hopefully, this bit of news is the last nail in the coffin of Section 215 and the American public won’t allow the government to continue spying in this way. Senator Wyden called for accountability in a statement to the New York Times:
“The D.N.I. has provided no guarantee that the government wouldn’t use the Patriot Act to intentionally collect Americans’ web browsing information in the future, which is why Congress must pass the warrant requirement that has already received support from a bipartisan majority in the Senate.”