By Justin Elliott, ProPublica
In the months following the October 2001, passage of the Patriot Act, there was a heated public debate about the very provision of the law that we now know the government is using to vacuum up phone records of American citizens on a massive scale.
"A chilling intrusion" declared one op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.
But the consternation didn't focus on anything like the mass collection of phone records.
Instead, the debate centered on something else: library records.
Salon ran a picture of a virtual Uncle Sam gazing at a startled library patron under the headline, "He knows what you've been checking out." In one of many similar stories, the San Francisco Chronicle warned, "FBI checking out Americans' reading habits."
The concern stemmed from the Patriot Act's Section 215, which, in the case of a terrorism investigation, allows the FBI to ask a secret court to order production of "any tangible things" from a third party like a person or business. The law said this could include records, papers, documents, or books.
Civil liberties groups and librarians' associations, which have long been fiercely protective of reader privacy, quickly raised fears of the FBI using that authority to snoop on circulation records.
The section even became known as the "library provision."
Yet as the Guardian and others revealed this month, the government has invoked the same provision to collect metadata on phone traffic of the majority of all Americans — a far larger intrusion than anything civil libertarians warned about in their initial response.
"A person might uncharitably think of us as lacking in imagination," says Lee Tien, a longtime attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.