NSA Surveillance Continues to Grow According to New Transparency Report
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statistical transparency report on their mass surveillance operations during 2017. The transparency report is required under the 2015 Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act (USA FREEDOM Act) and last years FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act. The USA FREEDOM Act was passed as an attempt to roll back Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed for the bulk collection of data. Congress’ transparency report requirement in the USA FREEDOM Act was meant to show how the NSA and the rest of the United States intelligence community was using their surveillance powers. In 2017 Congress passed the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which required the United States intelligence community to report additional statistics on their surveillance activities.
While the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released some details on its mass surveillance operations, civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue that the intelligence community has not fully compliant with the reporting requirements of the USA FREEDOM Act. Despite the NSA’s legal obligation to report the number of unique identifiers, such as phone numbers, those statistics were not released in the intelligence community’s new statistical transparency report. According to the report the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records tripled last year, exceeding half a billion records.
The new statistical transparency report shows the largest increase in the number of foreigners being targeted under Section 702 of FISA, since the agency has been releasing public statistical transparency reports. According to the NSA’s statistical transparency report, in 2017 there was a 20% increase in the number of foreigners being targeted under Section 702 of FISA. Privacy rights and civil liberties activists believe that there has likewise been a similar increase in the number of Americans under surveillance. It was revealed in the new statistical transparency report that a growing number of Americans communications were being searched under the authority of Section 702 of FISA, even though such searches are not authorized by Section 702 of FISA.
Last year alone the United States intelligence community conducted over 7,500 backdoor searches of the communications of Americans. In 2016, the number of such searches was only 5,288, and in 2015 there had been an estimated 4,672 searches. The FBI does not report the number of backdoor searches it conducts. According to the new statistical transparency report, in 2016 there was only a single instance of the FBI receiving and reviewing information acquired under Section 702 of FISA about a known United States citizen or resident, for the purpose of a criminal investigation. The statistical transparency report also states that last year there were no reported instances of the FBI receiving and reviewing such information obtained under Section 702 of FISA. Additionally, the statistical transparency report also claims that last year the FBI opened no criminal investigations on a United States citizen or resident based wholly or in part on information obtained under FISA Section 702.
According to the statistical transparency report, there has been a decline in the number of surveillances conducted using what are known as “pen registers” and “trap and trace”, also known as PR/TT taps. The use of PR/TT taps requires a court order. So while the use of PR/TT surveillance may have decreased, warrantless mass surveillance has increased. The estimated number of targets under surveillance under Section 702 of FISA in 2016 was 106,469, and increased in 2017 to 129,080. The statistical transparency report also shows an increase in the total number of reports containing the identities of United States citizen or residents issued by the NSA under Section 702 of FISA. The number of those reports for last year exceeded 4,000. Over 1,300 of those 4,000 reports openly named the United States citizen or resident.