FBI Illegally Targeted U.S. Citizens With Warrantless NSA Database Searches, Secret Court Finds

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A secretive federal court has ruled that the Federal Bureau of Investigation abused the privacy rights of U.S. citizens by searching for their information within the National Security Agency’s databases that should legally only be used to gather foreign intelligence information.

The Wall Street Journal reports that on Tuesday the U.S. Intelligence Community released a court opinion on a ruling, which reveals that last year the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court found that a warrantless program for internet surveillance aimed at foreign agents was used to search Americans’ data.

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According to the FISA court, which rules on foreign surveillance warrants requested by the FBI and NSA, the FBI used the system to search for raw data on Americans. Such improper use of the program likely infringed upon those people’s constitutional rights, as the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches. Searching Americans’ data in the system ran afoul of the law that authorizes the program, according to the opinion. Because the judges’ opinion targets whether or not the broad practice at the FBI was legal and no individuals have been charged with a crime, the legal definition of “breaking the law” is a bit squishy in this case. But the judge was clear that the Feds are not treating the FISA courts properly.

The NSA’s system for warrantless searching of foreign communications was created out of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the wake of 9/11.

Under federal law, the databases of this program should only be used for foreign intelligence or uncovering evidence of foreign crimes.

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The FISA court reportedly found that agents performed tens of thousands of inappropriate searches within databases in 2017 and 2018, which allegedly included tens of thousands of phone numbers and emails. According to WSJ, the ruling suggests that the FBI used the system to vet sources and staff. The ruling also cites an instance when an FBI contractor used the system to find information on his family, other FBI staff, and himself.

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The Daily Beast reports that the court found on one day in December 2017 the FBI made 6,800 database searches based on social security numbers.

Senate Intelligence Committee senior member Ron Wyden said in a public statement that the ruling “reveals serious abuses 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.”

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“Last year, when Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA, it accepted the FBI’s outright refusal to account for all its warrantless backdoor searches of Americans,” Wyden said. “Today’s release demonstrates how baseless the FBI’s position was and highlights Congress’ constitutional obligation to act independently and strengthen the checks and balances on government surveillance.”

According to WSJ, Judge James Boasberg of the FISA court concluded that: “The court accordingly finds that the FBI’s querying procedures and minimization procedures are not consistent with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo