The National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation violated thousands of people’s civil liberties by exploiting systems intended for sussing out foreign intelligence and criminal activity, a federal judge found per the Washington Post.
In a December 2019 opinion first made public Friday, the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, James E. Boasberg, ruled that the FBI violated the law and the NSA ignored regulations when these agencies hoovered up emails and other forms of electronic communications from U.S. companies under a law meant for collecting specific intel. According to the ruling, the NSA and FBI illicitly collected this data under the so-called “Section 702” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law that compels service providers to share their customers’ communications with the FBI, NSA, and CIA if the query is “reasonably likely” to gather foreign intelligence information or evidence of criminal activity.
The provision has been widely decried by privacy advocates for its sweeping purview, and Boasberg noted that “there still appear to be widespread violations” even after the same federal court denounced these agencies over the very same violations in the past.
“It should be unnecessary to state that government officials are not free to decide for themselves whether or to what extent they should comply with court orders,” Boasberg wrote in the 83-page, partially redacted opinion per the Post.
The judge noted that FBI personnel “searched for information on a candidate for a local police officer job, on college students participating in a ‘Collegiate Academy,’ on potential sources and on a victim who reported a crime” under the guise of Section 702 queries, according to the outlet. One batch query collected data on 16,000 people for reasons the court didn’t disclose, and only seven of those people were later found to have links to criminal activity or foreign intelligence information. The FBI cited Section 702 and argued that all 16,000 searches were “reasonably likely” to produce intel, but Boasberg ruled these claims “unsupportable.”
Boasberg also ruled that the FBI broke the law by gathering “communications involving U.S. persons in cases where they were seeking evidence of a crime not related to national security” without a court order. This incident was later traced to an issue with the “preview pane” in the FBI’s system, a senior FBI official told the Post on the condition of anonymity.
“So employees were running searches not realizing they were hitting [off-limits data],” the official explained. They added that the bureau has since taken steps to correct this oversight and retrained its workforce to better understand the law’s rules to safeguard civil liberties.
NSA personnel also reportedly flouted similar safeguards within the last year. Their reasoning: They were concerned about missing out on important intel and, given that the agency had previously corrected another method of data gathering that overstepped procedures, personnel apparently “felt the rule was no longer needed,” senior intelligence officials told the outlet. The NSA has since purged that data, the privacy officer of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Ben Huebner, said in a press conference.
This marks the second time this week that the NSA has made headlines for violating people’s privacy with illicit snooping. On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the NSA illegally seized metadata and phone records in the 2013 conviction of four Somali immigrants in fundraising for terrorist organizations. The ruling determined that the NSA violated the Foreign Surveillance Act in this incident and was likely an unconstitutional abuse of power.