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Year in review: Electronic surveillance takes center stage

Congress, courts wrestle with the Patriot Act, and RFID tags become more popular.

4 min read

Year in Review: SURVEILLANCE

The Year in Review

Electronic surveillance takes center stage

In a hurried response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and New York City, the U.S. Congress approved the Patriot Act with scant debate. Some politicians said they had no time to read it before the vote, held a few weeks after the attacks.

But in a compromise designed to allay the fears of civil libertarians and small-government conservatives, a few portions of the mammoth law included an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2005.

Toward the beginning of the year, it seemed that Congress might seriously scrutinize the way the law has been used by federal police and even consider scaling it back.

As the December expiration date nears, however, politicians are considering ways to expand the Patriot Act and, at the very least, renew it for a few more years.

At press time, both the Senate and House of Representatives had approved their own versions of a renewal, but failed to reach compromises on key details--including whether the 16 expiring sections would be renewed for four, seven or 10 years. Last-minute negotiations continue.

Outside of Washington, D.C., the Patriot Act continues to be a lightening rod for criticism of the Bush administration's "war on terror" at home.

A federal appeals court in November heard oral arguments in a challenge to the Patriot Act's dramatic expansion of how "national security letters"--secret requests from the FBI sent without court approval--have been used to obtain data from telecommunications companies.

Other courts have begun scrutinizing how the Patriot Act applies to electronic surveillance. One judge in Massachusetts restricted what federal prosecutors could obtain without a court order. Another denied a request to monitor cell phone owners' locations, saying prosecutors didn't demonstrate any evidence of actual criminal activity.

The Federal Communications Commission ruled in September that Internet phone companies and broadband providers must make their networks easily wiretappable for police convenience. A few weeks later, universities, telecommunications companies and civil liberties groups sued to overturn the rules, saying the FCC has no authority to impose them.

Radio-frequency ID tags continued to raise some privacy concerns, though not as much as last year. An elementary school in Sutter, Calif., pulled the plug on a plan to RFID-tag students, but state politicos shelved plans to keep the tags out of driver's licenses. The U.S. State Department announced all new U.S. passports will be implanted with RFID tags starting in October 2006. The Real ID Act requires "machine-readable technology" in state driver's licenses too.

Security breaches continued to give politicians new excuses to impose remarkably strict data-collection regulations on companies, but no law was actually approved this year. Congress also failed to approve a bill regulating "spyware." Google and Sony came under fire for their privacy practices, and the FBI ditched its Carnivore surveillance system for a privately developed successor version.

--Declan McCullagh

2005 Highlights

The flip side of database snooping

The same features that make databases useful to businesses make them even more attractive to law enforcement, News.com's Declan McCullagh says.
February 7, 2005

FAQ: How Real ID will affect you

In 2008, a federally approved ID card may be required to travel, open a bank account, even collect Social Security.
May 6, 2005

Senators propose sweeping data-security bill

Far-reaching bill includes an avalanche of new rules for corporate data security and stiff penalties for information burglars.
June 29, 2005

Feds push for full renewal of Patriot Act

Parts of the controversial post-9/11 law expire soon. The U.S. Justice Department wants to keep them.
June 30, 2005

FCC schizo on DSL, wiretapping

In a pair of decisions, the commissioners vote to veer in two radically different directions.
August 8, 2005

Feds fund VoIP-tapping research

George Mason University researchers who say they've found a new way to trace Net phone calls receive a $307,436 federal grant.
August 9, 2005

E-mail wiretap case can proceed, court says

Surprise decision: Federal appeals court changes its mind and says criminal trial of e-mail provider can proceed.
August 11, 2005

California shelves RFID ban

State postpones further consideration of a bill intended to address privacy concerns over high-tech IDs.
August 26, 2005

FBI Net-wiretapping rules face challenges

Rules demanding that Internet providers and universities rewire their networks for FBI surveillance are being challenged in federal court.
October 24, 2005

Passports to get RFID chip implants

The State Department says tiny tracking chips will be put in passports starting next year, despite concerns over privacy.
October 25, 2005

Police blotter: Feds' cell phone tracking denied

Police must show some evidence of actual criminal activity before tracking cell phone users' location, judges conclude.
October 28, 2005

Senator warns of Patriot Act alarmists

Potential members of a civil liberties board are urged not to spread "disinformation" about the Patriot Act.
November 8, 2005

Who has the right to control your PC?

Sony "rootkit" CD debacle spotlights broader clash over rights to control the way computers function.
November 21, 2005

E-tracking, coming to a DMV near you

Digging into latest federal brainstorm to keep tech tabs on citizens' driving habits.
December 5, 2005

Behind the headlines

 

Year in Review: SURVEILLANCE

The Year in Review

Electronic surveillance takes center stage

In a hurried response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and New York City, the U.S. Congress approved the Patriot Act with scant debate. Some politicians said they had no time to read it before the vote, held a few weeks after the attacks.

But in a compromise designed to allay the fears of civil libertarians and small-government conservatives, a few portions of the mammoth law included an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2005.

Toward the beginning of the year, it seemed that Congress might seriously scrutinize the way the law has been used by federal police and even consider scaling it back.

As the December expiration date nears, however, politicians are considering ways to expand the Patriot Act and, at the very least, renew it for a few more years.

At press time, both the Senate and House of Representatives had approved their own versions of a renewal, but failed to reach compromises on key details--including whether the 16 expiring sections would be renewed for four, seven or 10 years. Last-minute negotiations continue.

Outside of Washington, D.C., the Patriot Act continues to be a lightening rod for criticism of the Bush administration's "war on terror" at home.

A federal appeals court in November heard oral arguments in a challenge to the Patriot Act's dramatic expansion of how "national security letters"--secret requests from the FBI sent without court approval--have been used to obtain data from telecommunications companies.

Other courts have begun scrutinizing how the Patriot Act applies to electronic surveillance. One judge in Massachusetts restricted what federal prosecutors could obtain without a court order. Another denied a request to monitor cell phone owners' locations, saying prosecutors didn't demonstrate any evidence of actual criminal activity.

The Federal Communications Commission ruled in September that Internet phone companies and broadband providers must make their networks easily wiretappable for police convenience. A few weeks later, universities, telecommunications companies and civil liberties groups sued to overturn the rules, saying the FCC has no authority to impose them.

Radio-frequency ID tags continued to raise some privacy concerns, though not as much as last year. An elementary school in Sutter, Calif., pulled the plug on a plan to RFID-tag students, but state politicos shelved plans to keep the tags out of driver's licenses. The U.S. State Department announced all new U.S. passports will be implanted with RFID tags starting in October 2006. The Real ID Act requires "machine-readable technology" in state driver's licenses too.

Security breaches continued to give politicians new excuses to impose remarkably strict data-collection regulations on companies, but no law was actually approved this year. Congress also failed to approve a bill regulating "spyware." Google and Sony came under fire for their privacy practices, and the FBI ditched its Carnivore surveillance system for a privately developed successor version.

--Declan McCullagh

2005 Highlights

The flip side of database snooping

The same features that make databases useful to businesses make them even more attractive to law enforcement, News.com's Declan McCullagh says.
February 7, 2005

FAQ: How Real ID will affect you

In 2008, a federally approved ID card may be required to travel, open a bank account, even collect Social Security.
May 6, 2005

Senators propose sweeping data-security bill

Far-reaching bill includes an avalanche of new rules for corporate data security and stiff penalties for information burglars.
June 29, 2005

Feds push for full renewal of Patriot Act

Parts of the controversial post-9/11 law expire soon. The U.S. Justice Department wants to keep them.
June 30, 2005

FCC schizo on DSL, wiretapping

In a pair of decisions, the commissioners vote to veer in two radically different directions.
August 8, 2005

Feds fund VoIP-tapping research

George Mason University researchers who say they've found a new way to trace Net phone calls receive a $307,436 federal grant.
August 9, 2005

E-mail wiretap case can proceed, court says

Surprise decision: Federal appeals court changes its mind and says criminal trial of e-mail provider can proceed.
August 11, 2005

California shelves RFID ban

State postpones further consideration of a bill intended to address privacy concerns over high-tech IDs.
August 26, 2005

FBI Net-wiretapping rules face challenges

Rules demanding that Internet providers and universities rewire their networks for FBI surveillance are being challenged in federal court.
October 24, 2005

Passports to get RFID chip implants

The State Department says tiny tracking chips will be put in passports starting next year, despite concerns over privacy.
October 25, 2005

Police blotter: Feds' cell phone tracking denied

Police must show some evidence of actual criminal activity before tracking cell phone users' location, judges conclude.
October 28, 2005

Senator warns of Patriot Act alarmists

Potential members of a civil liberties board are urged not to spread "disinformation" about the Patriot Act.
November 8, 2005

Who has the right to control your PC?

Sony "rootkit" CD debacle spotlights broader clash over rights to control the way computers function.
November 21, 2005

E-tracking, coming to a DMV near you

Digging into latest federal brainstorm to keep tech tabs on citizens' driving habits.
December 5, 2005

Behind the headlines