As disclosed this week, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2018 concluded the FBI’s spying operations violated Americans’ privacy rights.
The court ruling cited improper use of Section 702, an Internet surveillance database used primarily by the NSA.
Section 702 is designed to collect foreign intelligence from international phone calls and emails regarding cyber threats, terrorism suspects, and other security risks.
By law, the database can be used only to find evidence of a crime or to obtain foreign intelligence. Names of American citizens caught up in search queries are generally blacked out when information is shared among federal agencies.
Privacy advocates view the system as an unnecessarily broad tool that grants access to Americans’ personal information without a warrant.
According to court documents, FBI agents used Section 702 to vet their own personnel and sources. In at least one case, an FBI contractor accessed the system to find information about his relatives and coworkers.
The investigation revealed tens of thousands of improper database queries in 2017 and 2018.
“The court accordingly finds that the FBI’s querying procedures and minimization procedures are not consistent with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” wrote FISA Court Judge James Boasberg.
This issue was made public Tuesday after the Trump administration failed to convince a secret appeals court that improving the database to protect Americans’ privacy would make it harder for the FBI to address national security threats.
The FBI has agreed to improve privacy protections, implement new procedures, and create a compliance review team, but the case casts doubt on whether intelligence agencies are actually complying with the privacy procedures mandated by Congress.
The disclosure “reveals serious failings in the FBI’s backdoor searches, underscoring the need for the government to seek a warrant before searching through mountains of private data on Americans,” argues Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).
President Trump signed a six-year renewal of Section 702 in 2018.
Author’s Note: It’s not a surprise that the FBI has access to our phone numbers and emails. What is surprising is that the courts are starting to rule publicly against the agency’s surveillance methods.
Hopefully this case will lead to real change, including clear privacy laws for intelligence agencies and law enforcement.
Editor’s Note: As a former intelligence officer I can tell you that a database like this on Americans should NOT be collected. It is enormously tempting to expand the use of the data, then expand the collection slightly, and so on, until the FBI and NSA have data on every parts of our lives.
As I have said many times – It is not the function of a government to spy on its citizens.