The USA PATRIOT Act: What You Need to Know

By Fergus O'SullivanEditor-at-Large
— Last Updated:

Here at we’re big fans of privacy and even bigger fans of people protecting it. We’ve done an article on 99 free privacy tools and we’ve reported on the U.S. Congress allowing American ISPs to spy on their customers. In this article we’re going to take a look at the grandaddy of modern privacy-breaching legislation, the USA PATRIOT Act.

What Is the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act, to give it its common name, was passed shortly after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, but was not, as most people think, directly related to that. In fact, it’s passage through the houses of parliament was spurred on by the anthrax attacks of late 2001, when celebrities, politicians and plenty of others received suspicious packages of white powder in the mail.

This bit of mail-based nastiness was the perfect fuel on a fire already burning bright and on October 25, 2001, The U.S. Senate passed the, and it’s a mouthful, Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. The Patriot Act passed both houses almost unanimously, with only 66 Representatives and a single Senator voting against this rather scary piece of legislation.

Now, ever since Edward Snowden came out and spilled the beans on PRISM, SOMALGET and all the other off-the-books programs organized by the NSA, CIA and whatever other alphabet agencies, we all have gotten used to that the government might be listening. Back in 2001, however, all this was new and many people could be forgiven for thinking that it would all blow over.

It didn’t. Many of the surveillance in place now on both Americans as well as other parts of the world was directly inspired by the programs that came out of the passing of the Patriot Act. It’s tempting to think that it was because legislators the world over saw the ease with which the U.S. was able to put a massive surveillance apparatus in place with approval from most of its people, but it’s hard to say exactly.

What’s In the Patriot Act?

Though it’s difficult to give a full overview of what the Patriot Act made possible, even a summary reads like some tinpot dictator’s wish list. The Act,

  • Allowed civilian authorities to request aid from the military to keep order in certain cases
  • Expanded the scope of the spying allowed on both U.S. citizens as well as foreigners in the name of “removing obstacles to investigating terrorism”
  • Introduced several new kinds of warrants, some of which could be served on the flimsiest of pretexts (including “sneak-and-peek” warrants)
  • Weakened banking secrecy regulations to prevent money laundering
  • Gave more authority to the various U.S. border protection agencies to refuse entry to people they didn’t like (if you’ve ever been yelled at at the U.S. border for wanting to go on holiday, now you know why)
  • Changed a whole bunch of legal terminology to make prosecuting suspected terrorists easier (so now pipe bombs are weapons of mass destruction)

For a full overview, Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the Patriot Act, though we recommend the usual grain of salt while reading this open-source encyclopedia.

For those wondering, the Patriot Act did not allow for extraordinary rendition (the fun practice where the U.S. would fly people out to sunny vacation spots to be tortured), it just made it easier to implement it. The basis for rendition was actually laid by Bill Clinton.

Effects of the Patriot Act

The upshot of all the above is that it’s much easier for the U.S. government to go after terrorists. This probably sounds great, until you realize that it removes oversight from law enforcement and opens citizens up to the arbitrary implementation of these new rules by the authorities.

The abuses enabled by the Patriot Act are well-documented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as the LA Times, but can be summarized as follows: uncountable people, both in America and abroad, have been subjected to surveillance and worse for reasons that would not have stood up to scrutiny in an independent court of law.

Though these may seem like isolated cases, the fact is this kind of unwelcome attention could fall on pretty much anyone law enforcement doesn’t like, which, the way things are going now, is pretty much anybody. This is why here at we’re cautious to the point of paranoia: you never know when they are going to be coming after you.

Now, before you think our entire editorial team is sitting in darkened basements wearing tinfoil hats, let me assure you that we’re generally well-adjusted people, our odd choice of career notwithstanding. However, we are cautious: despite having little to hide except for our opinions, we encrypt our hard drives, use a VPN to surf the web and implement strong passwords.

The Patriot Act and Beyond

We’re cautious because the Patriot Act is in no way the final word on intrusive surveillance. President Obama was more than happy to sign extensions on the Act and in fact implemented even further measures. PRISM and other mass-surveillance programs were given life by the Patriot Act, but took that ball and ran with it. FISA, a law from the 70s that allowed for the tapping of people suspected of being spies, was amended to allow for the surveillance of suspected terrorists; the list goes on and none of it is pretty.

If you’re reading this from outside the U.S., it may be tempting to have a laugh at the expense of the Americans and their silly laws, but in other parts of the world privacy is as much under attack as it is there.

The Dutch government recently passed a law that allows security services to hack pretty much whomever they want, The French spy on their citizens as a matter of course and the UK passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which in some ways is even scarier than the Patriot Act.

It’s not just Europe, either: the Indian Supreme Court is debating privacy legislation now, with opponents uttering gems like “Privacy cannot be an absolute right. But it is a Fundamental Right.” Russia isn’t much better, either, and don’t get us started on China.


So, what’s a regular guy or girl to do? Though there are several routes open to you, the easiest thing you can do is, quite simply, get a VPN. We have an article on the best VPN providers (around 15 and counting at the time of this writing).

Though generally VPNs do cost money, getting one is the best way to stay safe on the Internet and not be spied on by either government agencies or cybercriminals. Get one today and many of the issues described above you can easily dodge.

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That said, there is no reason to sit back, either: we urge anyone and everyone to only vote for politicians who care about the privacy of citizens and, if you’re feeling particularly active, join groups that want to fight these breaches of our civil rights.

Thank you for reading and we hope you, too, will start fighting the good fight in favor of privacy. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so please feel free to comment below.