Bernie Sanders on Privacy & Digital Rights

Bernie Sanders believes that increasingly omnipresent mass surveillance and attempts to undermine net neutrality are corrosive to democracy in America. He has voted against the Patriot Act and opposes warrant-less wiretapping. In regards to net neutrality, he has co-sponsored and introduced legislation in favor of an open Internet.

Mass Surveillance: Mass surveillance should be curtailed, occurring only when the government follows due process, obtains warrants, and adheres to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Net Neutrality: The Internet should be free and open, and Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks equally—without prioritizing some customers, sites, or services over others.

Mass Surveillance

“In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. I worry very much about kids growing up in a society where they think ‘I’m not going to talk about this issue, read this book, or explore this idea because someone may think I’m a terrorist.’ That is not the kind of free society I want for our children.” – Bernie May 7, 2015

The National Security Agency (NSA) is a United States intelligence agency that  conducts large-scale illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens and domestic activities under the guise of protecting national security. We only know about this from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden who leaked documents that exposed the large scale programs used to conduct mass surveillance including private communications and other personal information of U.S. citizens.

The NSA is not the only U.S. surveillance agency conducting mass surveillance. We know about a few of these activities from the FBI, CIA, DHS, and DEA.

The so-called “intelligence” agency super-structure that we know about is quite expansive. The scope and extent of their activities are not fully disclosed to the public so there is no way to know what they are actually doing or whether those activities occur on U.S. soil or involve U.S. citizens. 

The 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have a combined 2019 budget of $81.1 billion. Those agencies are:

  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) 
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA) 
  • National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA)
  • National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
  • Army – Military Intelligence Corps
  • Navy – Office of Naval Intelligence
  • Marine Corps Intelligence
  • Air Force – Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISRA)
  • U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence
  • Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence
  • Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – Department of Justice
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Office of National Security Intelligence
  • The Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  • Department of the Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

There are numerous other state and local surveillance agencies including Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) that operate in cities and communities and share their intelligence with the federal surveillance super structure. The ACLU has reported there are JTTFs in 106 cities nationwide, employing approximately 4,400 people.  The JTTFs have surveilled peaceful advocacy groups such as School of the America’s Watch, Greenpeace, Catholic Workers Group, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Colorado, the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pennsylvania, many groups in New York, and others

What is the NSA doing?

The NSA collects then searches all Internet traffic that travels across major fiber optic backbones. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has a pending lawsuit which seeks a ruling that the NSA violates the Fourth Amendment by tapping into the Internet backbone and then copying and searching the data it collects.  The lawsuit, which has had some success, also challenges the legality of the surveillance done since 2008 under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act  and under Stellar Wind the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) from 2001-2008.


While the NSA claimed to filter out data which stays within the U.S., this is clearly not true. Under “upstream” surveillance, any of your communications could be intercepted by the NSA if the data happened to pass through a foreign server, even if the recipient is in the U.S. The NSA has pursued several other approaches to mass surveillance, including mass distribution of malware.

The NSA is also using a program called Prism. It’s complicated, but you can find more information at this site.  Below is a chart that shows how our communications are funneled to the NSA and searched. Want to know more? Check out this detailed timeline of the NSA domestic spying program.


How is this legal?

The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 was the pivotal piece of legislation that allowed the NSA and other government agencies to conduct mass surveillance against Americans with little to no oversight. This bill was first introduced by Joe Biden in 1995 as The Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995.

The USA Freedom Act of 2015 was intended to curtail the mass surveillance by the NSA.  That hasn’t happened. Unsurprisingly, the NSA has ignored the restrictions in the law that would have restricted their own unconstitutional mass surveillance of U.S. citizens. 

Got it. So I get that it’s creepy and invasive, but how is mass surveillance a threat to democracy?

According to a joint report by the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, “large-scale surveillance is seriously hampering U.S.-based journalists and lawyers in their work.”

This report details the chilling impact this has had on communication between journalists and their sources, attorneys and their clients, and government officials and the public. Each of these avenues of communication — reporting, legal representation, and transparent government — is critical to maintaining a functional democracy.

How does mass surveillance undermine cybersecurity?

In a letter to members of the House and Senate, engineers and security industry professionals agree that the government’s focus on Americans’ personal information only undermines our nation’s cybersecurity. For more information on Bernie’s positions on cybersecurity, see here.

So what’s Bernie’s position on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and, more generally, mass surveillance?

Bernie opposes warrantless wiretapping and overly broad government surveillance. He believes that it undermines the Constitution and is a blatant overreach of government power.

In an online Q&A, Bernie was asked: “Do you think that wiretapping of American citizens is necessary for security of America and Americans?”. Bernie replied:

 “I voted against the USA Patriot Act and voted against reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act. Obviously, terrorism is a serious threat to this country and we must do everything that we can to prevent attacks here and around the world. I believe strongly that we can protect our people without undermining our constitutional rights and I worry very, very much about the huge attacks on privacy that we have seen in recent years—both from the government and from the private sector. I worry that we are moving toward an Orwellian society and this is something I will oppose as vigorously as I can.”

Bernie has expressed concern over the vulnerability of U.S. cybersecurity, but also over mass surveillance. The use of facial recognition is being used as a surveillance tool.  The FBI has 680 million photos it can use in facial recognition program. And, the Lockport City School District in New York is set to become the first in the US to pilot a facial recognition system meant to monitor staff and students.

Bernie voted against the Patriot Act of 2001 as well as these other bills that legalize some forms of mass surveillance:

When voting against reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, Bernie said:

“I voted against extending the Patriot Act today for the same reason I voted against enacting it in 2001: it gives the government far too much power to spy on innocent United States citizens and provides for very little oversight or disclosure.  While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”

In 2005, as a member of the House of Representatives, Bernie introduced an amendment to prevent funds from being used to obtain library and book-buying records. The amendment passed, but was later removed during House-Senate negotiations.

Bernie voted against every piece of FISA legislation which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “[gave] the National Security Agency almost unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and emails.” 

Bernie introduced the Restore Our Privacy Act to limit over-broad surveillance requests.

What about the right to privacy on the internet?

The right to privacy on the internet is something that Bernie is concerned about and a reason he is calling for Facebook to the broken up

“After the CEO of Facebook testified before congress about how the company uses the personal data it collects, Bernie said, “The takeaway from the Mark Zuckerberg hearing gets to the heart of the issue: how do we use Facebook and the internet without seeing an invasion of our personal privacy? Thank you to Chris Hughes for recently speaking out about just why we need to break up Facebook.” 

Net Neutrality

In 2011, the United Nations declared access to the Internet to be a human right. Not only is it the largest source of global information exchange, our economy relies on it. After all, you’re on this site learning about Bernie’s positions and policies right now. And the fact that it’s completely decentralized is what makes it so useful. And, it’s ours.

Why is net neutrality important?

“Net neutrality,” is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data on an equal basis. That means that ISPs should not charge different rates to different customers or content-providers and should not give certain data special priority on their networks while interfering with the transmission of other information.

Advocates argue that permitting preferential treatment of web traffic would put newer Internet companies at a disadvantage and threaten innovation. It is a fundamental free speech issue that could give corporations even more control over our access to information.

Want to know more about the case for net neutrality? Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation or watch this video:

Why is this an issue? How is net neutrality in danger?

Congress introduced several industry-backed bills regarding copyright infringement and intellectual property rights: Counterfeits Act (COICA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The bills were supported by entertainment and publishing groups, but were opposed by public advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Wikimedia Foundation, and numerous tech companies.

What are all these bills and agreements even about? And why is there so much opposition against them?

The bill that started it all was the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), introduced in 2010. The bill allowed the government to  turn a website “off” if it decided copyright infringement was deemed “central to the activity” of the site. Wired called it one of the “most draconian laws ever considered to combat digital piracy.” COICA died in Congress, it was rewritten in 2011 as the Protect IP Act.

The Protect IP Act (PIPA) would have forced search engines, Domain Name System (DNS) providers, and internet advertising firms to “remove or disable access” to websites that the government decided was distributing copyrighted material. The wording of the bill meant access to sites like WikiLeaks could be blocked in the U.S.  

Later that year, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced with strong bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. However, there was strong opposition to the bill from technology companies like Wikipedia, Google, and more than 7,000 other websites. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained, this bill threatened free speech because it would allow for the removal of non-copyright infringing speech by creating an internet blacklist.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was discussed secretly from 2007 to 2010 between several countries such as the U.S., the E.U., Switzerland, Japan, and others. Critics said that ACTA “leaves the door open for countries to force internet service providers to police their own customers” and that it could lead to “widespread monitoring of the internet, and breaches of individual’s rights to privacy.” It was rejected by the E.U. in 2012, but President Obama continued to support ACTA.

What has Bernie said about these bills?

Bernie opposed PIPA, stating:

“While I believe that online piracy is a serious issue, it is absolutely essential that the Internet remain open and free of censorship or the chilling effects that result in self-censorship. I will not support legislation that results in censorship or self censorship on the Internet. The legislation before the Senate is currently being revised and should improve before it reaches a vote. I am taking the concerns of Vermonters and the Internet community very seriously. I am looking at the bill very closely and my staff is working with committee staff on ways to improve it.”

Bernie also considered SOPA/PIPA “too deeply flawed to continue.”

How does Bernie think we should protect net neutrality?

Bernie strongly supports net neutrality and reclassification of broadband providers as common carriers. He opposes any rules that would allow ISPs to restrict content and stifle innovation (i.e., the Internet “fast lane”).

Watch Bernie explain why the openness and neutrality of the internet is so vital.

What has Bernie done to strengthen net neutrality?

Bernie has consistently fought to maintain the Internet as an affordable service where everyone is treated the same. Bernie said, “Net neutrality is an issue of enormous consequence for our democracy. At a time when a handful of giant media conglomerates control much of what we see, hear and read it is imperative that we avoid corporate control of the internet.”

Over his congressional career, Bernie has co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to enforce net neutrality, such as the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act of 2015. This bill would have prevented Internet providers from creating a ”fast lane” for paying content providers and would generally prohibit ISPs from giving preferential treatment to any content providers. In other words, it would enforce net neutrality.

In 2006, as a member of the House of Representatives, Bernie introduced the Network Neutrality Act of 2006, which also would have enforced net neutrality on broadband providers. In 2007, Bernie introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in the Senate, which would have required broadband service providers to adhere to neutrality provisions and other regulations. 

In 2019, Bernie supported a bill to restore net neutrality, which was repealed by the FCC in June 2018.

Bernie Sanders has pledged to only nominate FCC commissioners who support net neutrality.

Learn about related policies at the Media Ownership & Telecommunications issue page.