By the end of 2023, Congress must decide whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 702 was intended to provide U.S. agencies with the statutory authority to collect intelligence only from foreigners abroad. Unfortunately, for over a decade, agencies have abused this authority, using loopholes in Section 702 to conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans.
For example, a report published by ODNI in April 2022 disclosed that, in 2021 alone, the FBI conducted as many as 3.4 million searches of Section 702-acquired data for information about Americans and their communications. And in 2018, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) Judge James Boasberg rebuked the FBI for improper use of 702 databases against Americans. The misuse of this surveillance is “widespread.” The FISC also revealed that the FBI has used warrantless NSA data in a range of cases involving purely domestic issues.
Such a system is worse than broken. It is assembling the elements for a pervasive, unaccountable surveillance state. Congress should not reauthorize Section 702 without making significant reforms to ensure these abuses do not continue under any authority.
Legislation that reauthorizes Section 702 must ensure compliance with key principles:
These principles are critical to Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. In 2023, Congress must end the pervasive abuse of Section 702 and other surveillance authorities.
Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Rep. Darin LaHood Reveals that At Least One Member of Congress Was Improperly Surveilled by the FBI – Himself
FBI Director Christopher Wray rankles many Members of Congress and civil libertarians by presenting a smooth, bland, and impenetrable affect when faced with tough questions. He did himself no favors when, responding to criticism about the 17 errors of commission and omission on the Carter Page scandal highlighted by the Department of Justice Inspector General, he said: “Thanks for the constructive criticism.”
Today he brought that poker face to Thursday’s House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. When asked about FBI’s use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL), Wray said the FBI had made mistakes in the Page affair under Title I of FISA, another authority under a previous director. By implication, this means that 702 must be hunky-dory.
But this overlooks the acknowledgment by a senior FBI official to New York Times journalist Charlie Savage that the FBI had used Section 702 some 204,090 times in warrantless surveillance of Americans in just one year alone.
Rep. LaHood also dug into Wray on the revelation that at least one Member of Congress had his name used as a query term in one 702 search.
“I want to make clear the FBI's inappropriate querying of a duly elected member of Congress is egregious and a violation [that] not only that degrades the trust in FISA but is viewed as a threat to the separation of powers," LaHood said during the hearing.
Then came a development as close to a Perry Mason moment as a Congressional hearing room has experienced since the early Cold War.
“I have had the opportunity to review the classified summary of this violation, and it is my opinion that the member of Congress that was wrongfully queried multiple times solely by his name was in fact me,” Rep. LaHood said.
Toward the end of his questioning, Rep. LaHood underscored that he is heading the Section 702 reauthorization working group for Congress. Expect LaHood to ask if other Members of Congress were treated the same way by the FBI, with constructive criticism – and new limits on the FBI’s authority – to follow.
Congress Should Not Reauthorize FISA Section 702 Without Key Principles to Protect Civil Liberties
PPSA has joined with other civil liberties organizations to distribute this message to Members of Congress and their staff.
By the end of 2023, Congress must decide whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 702 was intended to provide U.S. agencies with the authority to collect foreign intelligence. Unfortunately, for over a decade agencies have abused this authority to an extreme degree, using loopholes in Section 702 to conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of everyday Americans.
A report published by ODNI in April 2022 disclosed that, in 2021 alone, the FBI conducted as many as 3.3 million searches of Section 702-derived data for information about Americans' communications. And in 2018, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) Judge James Boasberg rebuked the FBI for improper use of 702 databases against Americans. The FISC also revealed that the FBI has used warrantless NSA data in a wide range of cases involving purely domestic issues.
Such a system is worse than broken: it is assembling the elements for a pervasive, unaccountable surveillance state. Congress should not reauthorize Section 702 without making significant reforms to ensure these abuses end once and for all.
Specifically, legislation to reauthorize Section 702 should ensure compliance with these key principles:
These principles are critical to protecting Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. We must end the pervasive abuse of Section 702 and other surveillance authorities.
Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
“Just One Sign of a Much Larger Privacy Crisis"
In February, we quoted CATO Institute senior fellow Julian Sanchez that the evidence presented by special counsel John Durham against lawyer Michael Sussman shows an interesting trail that leads from academic researchers, to private cybersecurity companies and security experts, to government snoopers.
Sanchez said: “A question worth asking is: Who has access to large pools of telecommunications metadata, such as DNS records, and under what circumstances can those be shared with the government?”
Sanchez’s prescient questions received partial answers today from Sen. Ron Wyden. The Oregon senator released a letter he sent to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate Neustar, a company that links Domain Name System (DNS) services of websites to specific IP addresses and the people who use them.
Such companies, Sen. Wyden wrote, “receive extremely sensitive information from their users, which many Americans would want to remain private from third parties, including government agencies acting without a court order.” Some websites cited by the senator that consumers may visit but would not want known are the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the National Domestic Violence Lifeline, and the Abortion Finder service.
Sen. Wyden wrote that Neustar, under former executive Rodney Joffe, sold data for millions of dollars to Georgia Tech, but not for purely academic research. Emails obtained by Sen. Wyden purportedly show that the FBI and DOJ “asked the researchers to run specific queries and that the researchers wrote affidavits and reports for the government describing their findings.”
Because Neustar obtained data from an acquired company – and that company explicitly promised to never sell users data to third-parties – Neustar violated that promise. Sen. Wyden says it is FTC policy that privacy promises to consumers must be honored when a company and its data change ownership.
“Senator Wyden provides sufficient reason for the FTC to open an investigation,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability (PPSA). “But there is more reason for the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress to hold in-depth hearings. There are abundant signs that this story is just one example of a much bigger privacy crisis.”
Schaerr noted that intelligence and law enforcement agencies, from the Internal Revenue Service to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection, as well as the FBI, assert they can lawfully avoid the constitutional requirement for probable cause warrants by simply buying Americans’ personal information from commercial data brokers.
“Data from apps most Americans routinely use are open to warrantless examination by the government,” Schaerr said. “The Founders did not write the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment with a sub-clause, ‘unless you open your wallet.’ These practices are explicitly against the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution. Americans deserve to know how many agencies are buying data, how many companies are selling it, and what is being done with it.”
Bipartisan Stake in Republican FBI Report
Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee recently released a 1,000 page report concerning the creeping politicization of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. The report describes the “FBI’s Washington hierarchy as ‘rotted at its core’ with a ‘systemic culture of unaccountability.’”
Though it was drafted by House Republicans, Democrats should be worried enough about the scale and scope of abuses to jointly investigate at least some of the reports’ allegations.
Internet conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the report demonstrates all the valid reasons to be concerned about the integrity of the FBI. Michael Horowitz, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice, called out the rampant abuses, noncompliance, and mishandling that goes on daily within the Bureau. That such criticism comes from a senior official, a Democrat, now serving in President Biden’s Administration, should demonstrate the bipartisan nature of these concerns.
Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the FBI is authorized to examine data likely to return foreign intelligence information. Sometimes, U.S. citizens or residents get incidentally caught up in calls, texts, or emails with a targeted foreigner. In these cases, oversight should ensure constitutional rights are protected. One would expect in such a system, then, that “incidental” collections of U.S. person information would be modest.
According to information from the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, however, the FBI conducted an estimated 3,394,053 U.S. person queries in 2021. This is a staggering increase over the approximately 1,324,057 U.S. person queries conducted in the previous year.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) disclosed numerous instances in which the FBI queried acquired information for criminal investigations and reviewed content results without first obtaining court permission. Judge James E. Boasberg, then-presiding judge of the FISC, concluded that “the Court is concerned about the apparent widespread violations …”
Most familiar is the FBI’s abuse of its FISA authority to illegally surveil former Trump campaign associate Carter Page. IG Horowitz reported “17 significant ‘errors or omissions’ and 51 wrong or unsupported factual assertions in the applications to surveil Page.” An FBI lawyer went so far as to manufacture evidence presented to a judge to support surveillance against Page. The Justice Department was later forced to admit that the whole basis for this secret surveillance of a presidential campaign aide was flawed. But by then, the damage to civil liberties was done.
The FBI may also be maintaining the technological capacity to unleash “zero-click” spyware programs, including NSO Group’s Pegasus. The U.S. Commerce Department has put Pegasus’ developer, NSO Group, on a list of foreign companies that restricts the ability of U.S. companies to work with it, but that didn’t stop the FBI from obtaining, testing, and retaining it for later use.
In March, members of the Judiciary Committee wrote to FBI Director Wray seeking documents and information relating to the FBI’s acquisition, testing, and uses of NSO Group’s spyware. The FBI has provided none of the requested documentation, while concerns about its intentions with such a dangerous piece of spyware only grow.
As has been reiterated by Republicans, Democrats, and President Biden’s own Inspector General, there is serious cause for concern about the agency’s hierarchy, culture, and use of its authorities.
We all have a stake in these investigations.
Luxury Surveillance: What Could Go Wrong?
Chris Gilliard in Atlantic describes a day of “luxury surveillance” – what an affluent consumer experiences by being willing to have his heartbeat, sleep, fitness, mood, digital orders, and daily queries continuously tracked.
This is not, Gilliard writes, a dystopian vision. In Gilliard’s “day in the life” description all the services and devices are current Amazon products endowed with what the company calls “ambient surveillance.” They could just as easily be Apple Watches, Apple, Samsung or Google smartphones, or Google Nest devices. What could be wrong, then, with consumers by the millions opting into ambient surveillance?
Gilliard sees a lot wrong. He offers a cautionary note from personal experience:
“Growing up in Detroit under the specter of the police unit STRESS – an acronym for ‘Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets’ – armed me with a very specific perspective on surveillance and how it is deployed against Black communities. A key tactic of the unit was the deployment of the surveillance in the city’s ‘high crime’ areas. In two and a half years of operation during the 1970s, the unit killed 22 people, 21 of whom were Black.”
Now, Gilliard writes, “think of facial recognition falsely incriminating Black men, or the Los Angeles Police Department requesting Ring-doorbell footage of Black Lives Matter protests.”
We would add that one problem with luxury surveillance is that all this data being compiled on us can be easily acquired by local law enforcement, as well as by federal agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the Department of Homeland Security. It is one thing to be surveilled in order to have an ad slipped into your social media feed. It is something else to find a SWAT team knocking down your door at dawn. Luxury surveillance is a boon for consumers until it isn’t. All the more reason why Americans should support the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would at least constrain the ability of the government to get around the Constitution by buying our most personal information.
Measure to Bring Civil Liberties Experts into Secret Court
George Washington is often quoted as telling Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was meant to “cool” hot legislation from the House, just as saucers were used to cool tea. Senators today furiously debate whether the extra-constitutional rule that enables the filibuster is needed to facilitate the cooling of political passions, or if the 60-vote threshold has transformed the Senate into an abattoir for change of any sort.
Whichever side one comes down on in that debate, shouldn’t the Senate move swiftly on an issue it had already overwhelmingly approved with a filibuster-proof majority in the recent past?
In 2020, 77 senators voted in favor of the measure then known as the Lee-Leahy Amendment, which would give the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) access to independent advice from experts on civil liberties, known as amici, when the government seeks to spy on domestic media, as well as religious, political, and other particularly sensitive groups. The amendment died when the underlying bill reauthorizing government access to business records was pulled at the last minute by President Trump.
Now known as Leahy-Lee, this measure is being proposed as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. Leahy-Lee would satisfy liberal concerns that the FBI uses powers meant for foreign intelligence to target the First Amendment rights of vulnerable minorities and protest groups. Conservatives have fresh reason for concern given the revelations from the Durham investigation about FBI applications before the FISC to spy on a presidential campaign aide. Time and again, the FBI has proven reckless and disingenuous.
Aside from National Eat a Peach Day and the like, a 77-vote margin is about as enthusiastic a showing as any substantive bill gets in the Senate. And yet when there was a recent chance to append Leahy-Lee to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023, the amendment appeared nowhere in the manager’s report.
The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability is joining with the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity, Demand Progress, the Due Process Institute, FreedomWorks, Restore the Fourth, and the Wikimedia Foundation to call on senators to hold a floor vote on Leahy-Lee now or in the coming lame duck session.
In our coalition letter, we told the Senate that “Leahy-Lee would safeguard Americans’ First Amendment rights by empowering the Court with the advice of amici when government seeks to use foreign intelligence surveillance in such sensitive investigative matters. Expert amici are the only representatives the public has before the FISC, even though these court decisions can secretly affect the privacy of every single person in the United States.”
We urge the Senate to show that it can respond to popular support and broad, bipartisan agreement in its own ranks to hold a vote on this needed check and balance on federal surveillance.
Senate Courts a Zero Rating on Privacy
PPSA rated the 116th Congress (2019-2021) for votes to protect the privacy of Americans from intrusive surveillance. In the Senate, for example, 77 Senators voted in 2020 for a measure that would require a qualified legal expert to represent the civil liberties interests of the American people in sensitive cases before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). As a result of this and other key votes, PPSA was able to rate each Member of the Senate and House on a scale of 0 to 5 on their support for privacy.
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, for example, received a rating of 4, reflecting her strong stand in multiple votes for the measure to require civil liberties perspectives for sensitive FISC cases. As the Senate nears the end of the 117th Congress, and Senators turn their attention to the midterm elections in 2022, popular, viable, ready-to-pass bills on privacy and surveillance are at the ready. But will they actually get a vote on the Senate calendar?
These measures include:
The House has done a solid job of passing bills that protect Americans’ privacy from government surveillance. Their companion bills enjoy strong bipartisan support from leaders that include Sens. Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee, Steve Daines, Ron Wyden, and others. We hope the full Senate follows their lead. We want to give all Senators a strong rating for following these privacy leaders and passing measures to restore at least some of Americans’ privacy.