WashU Expert: Americans ‘care deeply about their privacy’

School of Law's Richards discusses expired Patriot Act provisions

Several key provisions of the Patriot Act ended this week after the U.S. Senate let them expire.


As a result, the National Security Agency (NSA) has, at least temporarily, halted the bulk data collection program used to amass phone data for millions of Americans.

Neil Richards, JD, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the country’s foremost academic experts on privacy law, discusses the consequences and potential next steps:

“The expiry of these provisions of the Patriot Act is significant on several levels. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the vast scope of government surveillance broke two years ago this week. The Senate’s action shows that the debate on privacy and national security, kick-started by Snowden. continues to matter to ordinary people and to their elected representatives.

“Before Snowden, politicians and security officials could merely invoke the specter of 9/11 to gain and preserve new surveillance powers. The rejection of these powers by the Senate over the past week shows that we are moving to a new phase of the debate, one in which the Congress is not going to rubber-stamp ever more intrusive requests for surveillance. In a democracy, this is a very important positive development.

“Second, the fact that the sunset of these powers hasn’t provoked mass outrage is a sign that ordinary Americans, like ordinary people around the world, continue to care deeply about their privacy, and believe that in a democracy, the government should not have the ability to scrutinize intimate details about everyone’s lives without due cause.

“It is a rejection of an almost Orwellian vision of constant and pervasive surveillance, and a statement that ordinary people in a free society have a right to privacy against the government. In particular, we all have a right to intellectual privacy — the ability to make up our minds about the world by thinking, reading and communicating without being watched or interfered with. Rampant surveillance menaces our intellectual privacy, and with it our ability to be free in a meaningful way.

“That said, the sunset is merely one skirmish in a larger battle for civil liberties and privacy. The Senate has rejected the kind of unchecked surveillance that we have lived with for the past decade, but some kind of compromise package is inevitable. The details of that package will matter a great deal, and will determine the contours of our right to privacy and intellectual privacy against the government for the foreseeable future.

“This is very much a developing story, and the next few weeks will be critical.”

Richards is available for media interviews at nrichards@wustl.edu.