Based on the yearly transparency report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released Friday, April 29, the emails, texts and other electronic communications of almost 3.4 million Americans had been checked by the FBI without a warrant.
FBI staff made the "queries" between December 2020 and November 2021 as they searched for signs of threats and terrorists within electronic data legally gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FBI supposedly conducted the massive data probe to stop hacking attacks, but ACLU isn't buying it.
"Today's report sheds light on the extent of these unconstitutional 'backdoor searches,' and underscores the urgency of the problem. It's past time for Congress to step in to protect Americans' Fourth Amendment rights," ACLU National Security Project Senior Staff Attorney Ashley Gorski said in a statement.
The FBI authority employed in this case was based on Section 702 of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is due to expire at the end of 2023 unless it is renewed by Congress.
The report didn't clarify whether the activity was wrong or illegal. Nevertheless, the revelation could restart congressional and public debates over the power United States agencies have to gather and examine intelligence information, especially data regarding people.
According to the 38-page report, less than 1.3 million queries concerning Americans' data were performed between December 2019 and November 2020 when compared to the latest queries.
The ODNI also gave updated statistics reflecting a significant rise in the number of times government officials wanted to learn the identity of an American – a practice usually mentioned as "unmasking" that became a subject matter for former U.S. President Donald Trump and his conservative supporters.
The report tried to justify the rise in FBI queries during the past year.
"In the first half of the year, there were a number of large batch queries related to attempts to compromise U.S. critical infrastructure by foreign cyber actors. These queries, which included approximately 1.9 million query terms related to potential victims – including U.S. persons – accounted for the vast majority of the increase in U.S. person queries conducted by FBI over the prior year," the report said.
According to the report, the actual number of U.S. residents who possibly had their information examined is unknown because there is no accurate way to measure the data.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is a member of the intelligence committee, said the FBI and other agencies must provide exact information if they want to maintain their authority. (Related: The FBI is now mainly a weapon against Republicans)
"For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans' communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless. Baseline transparency is essential if the federal government wants to hold such sweeping surveillance powers," Wyden said in a statement.
Under unmasking, the ODNI reported about 10,700 requests to disclose an American person's identity in 2021 and less than 7,000 in 2020. Of those requests, agencies were authorized to do so around 9,800 times in 2021 against 6,000 in 2020.
Intelligence reports usually shield the identity of American individuals whose communications are caught up in surveillance, mentioning them as "Individual 1" or the likes. American officials can request that real names of people be given when necessary, and that is not unusual as officials try to understand the importance of the information.
Unmasking a name is different from leaking it to the news media or making it public, which can be considered a crime.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during last Friday's press briefing that she had not talked with President Joe Biden about the report in the Wall Street Journal.
"My understanding is that some of this was about researching and doing an investigation into potential hacking, but I will get you more from the FBI after this," Psaki told the press.
According to the Journal, a senior FBI official said the 3.4 million Americans checked "is certainly a large figure" and "I am not going to pretend that it isn't."
Some senior Biden administration officials told the Journal that the exact number of searches is likely far less.
The officials clarified that there are intricacies in classifying Americans against foreign individuals' data. Furthermore, if an individual's data are checked multiple times, each would count as a search, moving the total number higher. Therefore the number does not show the real number of individuals affected.
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