A secretive surveillance court ruled that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s electronic surveillance activities were a clear violation of the constitutional rights to privacy of Americans.
U.S. spying programs have traditionally held their own against legal challenges once they were strengthened substantially after the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks. As a result, this new opinion made the FBI agree to better protect privacy and apply new procedures, which include recording how the database is searched to uncover potential compliance issues further down online.
The intelligence community revealed on Tuesday, October 8, 2019 that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court last year discovered that the FBI’s endeavors to search data on Americans caught up in a warrantless internet-surveillance program designed to target foreign suspects have violated the law enabling this program. Additionally, the FBI’s efforts were found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches.
This issue went public after the government lost an appeal of the judgment earlier in 2019 before another secret court. The court came to the conclusion that in a few cases, the FBI was improperly searching a database of raw intelligence for data on Americans. This raised concerns about the oversight of the program, which is a spy program that operates in virtual secrecy.
The ruling in October 2018 identified improper searches of raw intelligence databases by the bureau in 2017 and 2018 that were considered to be unconstitutional because of their scope, which at times involved queries linked to thousands or tens of thousands of pieces of data, like emails or telephone numbers. In one instance, the ruling implied that the FBI was using the intelligence data to vet its personnel and cooperating sources. Under federal law, the FBI is only allowed to search the database as part of finding evidence of a crime or for foreign-intelligence information.
In other cases, the court declared that the database was misused by certain individuals. One case involved an FBI contractor running a query of an intelligence database. He searched information on himself, other FBI personnel and his relatives, according to court revelations.
The program discussed is known as Section 702 surveillance. It has origins in the national-security tools that the George W. Bush administration set up following the 9/11 attacks. It was later enacted by Congress to focus on the electronic communications of non-Americans abroad. The National Security Agency mainly used this program to gather certain forms of foreign intelligence from international phone calls and emails about terrorist suspects, cyber threats, and other security threats.
Civil liberties advocates have slammed the Section 702 law for its broad surveillance powers which can get Americans into legal trouble without even requiring individual warrants. Naturally, intelligence officials have defended this program, claiming that it is one of the most valuable national security mechanisms they use, even as some intelligence agencies concede that certain communication data from Americans are gathered in the process.
Indeed, this ruling is a decent first step for privacy advocates. Hopefully, Trump can study this situation more closely and recognize how the intelligence community is no friend of America and can easily be used against his supporters.