Last summer, the details of the NSA’s “backdoor searches” were revealed (see also: DNI Clapper Letter to Sen. Wyden Confirms NSA Warrantless Searches of Americans’ Data Using 702 “Backdoor Loophole”. This involved big collections of content and metadata (so, no, not “just metadata” as meaningless as that phrase is) that were collected under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). This is part of the program that the infamous PRISM effort operates under, and which allows the NSA to collect all sorts of content, including communications to, from or about a “target” — where a “target” can be incredibly loosely defined (i.e., it can include groups or machines or just about anything). The “backdoor searches” were a special loophole added in 2011 allowing the NSA to make use of “US person names and identifiers as query terms.” In the past, it had been limited (as per the NSA’s mandate) to only non-US persons.
James Clapper has finally responded to a request from Senator Ron Wyden concerning the number of such backdoor searches using US identifiers that were done by various government agencies. The letter came in response to a question by Sen. Wyden during an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 5, and surprisingly it’s redaction free. The big reveal is… that it’s not just the NSA doing these searches, but the CIA and FBI as well. This is especially concerning with regards to the FBI. This means that the FBI, who does surveillance on Americans, is spying on Americans communications that were collected by the NSA and that they’re doing so without anything resembling a warrant. Oh, and let’s make this even worse: the FBI isn’t even tracking how often it does this. It’s just doing it willy nilly.
Basically, the FBI often asks the NSA for a big chunk of data that the NSA probably shouldn’t have in the first place — including tons of Americans’ communications, and the FBI gets to dump it into the same database that it is free to query. And the FBI tracks none of this, other than to say that it believes that there are a “substantial” number of such queries. This would seem to be a pretty blatant attempt to end run around the 4th Amendment, giving the FBI broad access to searching through the communications of Americans with what appears to be almost no oversight.
And it’s not just the NSA, but the CIA as well. Remember, the CIA is not supposed to be doing any surveillance on US persons (like the NSA), but that’s not what’s happening at all. At least the CIA tracks some (but not all) of its abuse of backdoor searches. Of course, when it comes to metadata searches, the CIA doesn’t bother. It’s also a bit bizarre that the CIA is apparently carrying out a bunch of those searches for “other U.S. intelligence agencies,” when the CIA should be especially limited in its ability to do these searches in the first place.
Senator Wyden has responded to these revelations by pointing out how “flawed” the oversight system is that these have been allowed:
When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight. This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected. The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans. I intend to follow this up until it is fixed.
Last week the House of Representatives voted to defund the ability to do these kinds of backdoor searches. Still, much more needs to be done.