A decade ago James Bovard warned about additional powers that might be added to the Patriot Act, powers that would increase the scope of federal surveillance of citizens:
Section 101 of the proposed bill, titled “Individual Terrorists as Foreign Powers,” would revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to permit the U.S. government to label individuals who are suspected terrorists—including American citizens—as “foreign powers” for the purpose of conducting total surveillance of their activities. This alteration nullifies all Fourth Amendment rights of the target, allowing the government to tap phones, search computers, and read e-mail—even when there is no evidence that a citizen is violating any statute. If Section 101 becomes law, the more people the feds wrongfully accuse of being terrorists, the more power federal agents will receive.
Americans suspected of gathering information for a foreign power could be subject to FISA surveillance even though they were violating no law and the information gathered did not pertain to national security. The administration’s confidential explanation of proposed Section 102 notes, “Requiring the additional showing that the intelligence gathering violates the laws of the United States is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as such activities threaten the national security regardless of whether they are illegal.” But, as the ACLU noted, “This amendment would permit electronic surveillance of a local activist who was preparing a report on human rights for London-based Amnesty International, a ‘foreign political organization,’ even if the activist was not engaged in any violation of law.”
Prism, the NSA program Edward Snowden has revealed, does not (so far as we know) extend to reading the electronic communications exhaustively cataloged by the agency, but in other respects it vastly exceeds the data-grabbing Bovard described. And Prism is a program that a relatively low-level employee of a government contractor had access to; there’s sure to be much more above Snowden’s pay grade.
Bovard’s own work amounts to citizen surveillance of abusive government, and this seems like a good time to bone up on it, with books Terrorism and Tyranny and Attention Deficit Democracy—as well as Bovard’s Kindle-only memoir, Public Policy Hooligan, my short take on which can be found here.