By Ken Silva
The number of searches conducted by the FBI of Americans’ communications doubled from 2020 to 2021, according to a report released April 29 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
The ODNI report details U.S. intelligence agencies’ use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorizes the warrantless surveillance of electronic communications content stored by U.S. internet service providers. ODNI noted that this year’s report is the first one to track the FBI’s use of “unminimized Section 702 collection”—raw data collected by the National Security Agency (NSA).
According to the report, the FBI used its Section 702 powers to collect the data of some 3.4 million U.S. persons in 2021—up from 1.3 million a year before. The report only provides statistics for 2020 and 2021.
A senior FBI official reportedly said in a press briefing Friday that the 3.4 million figure “is certainly a large number.”
“I am not going to pretend that it isn’t,” the official said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Senior Biden Administration officials reportedly attributed the uptick in FBI searches to Russian cyberattacks throughout 2021.
“More specifically on this threat, we identified a pool of potential victims, which did include U.S. persons, and we ran that against our 702 collection in order to identify who, in particular, Russia was actually targeting,” the senior official said, according to The Record.
The report noted that tracking the exact number of Americans caught in the FBI’s surveillance dragnet is difficult because the bureau tracks its Section 702 data differently from other agencies.
“For reasons discussed more fully below, these statistics are reported separately from NSA, CIA, and NCTC due to unique variations in FBI’s data, chief among them that FBI does not count the number of unique query terms, but instead counts the total number of queries, which could include duplicate queries of the same term,” the report said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released a statement on April 29, reacting to the report and calling for a more detailed explanation from the FBI. Section 702 of FISA is set to expire next year unless reauthorized by Congress.
“For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans’ communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless. Somewhere in all that over-counting are real numbers of FBI searches, for content and for non-content—numbers that Congress and the American people need before Section 702 is reauthorized,” Wyden said.
“The FBI must also be transparent about the particular circumstances in which it conducted a staggering 1.9 million additional queries in 2021,” he said. “Finally, the public deserves to know whether the FBI has fully addressed the extensive abuses of its 702 search authorities that have been documented for years. Baseline transparency is essential if the federal government wants to hold such sweeping surveillance powers.”
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