In 2018, there was a significant increase in the number of warrantless searches of Americans’ data, the findings were revealed in an intelligence agency transparency report.
The NSA conducts warrantless searches of foreigners under its Section 702 powers of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). These powers allow the government to spy with little oversight and to obtain data in secret from US tech companies. Section 702 also gives intelligence agencies authority to obtain Americans’ communication data through surveillance of foreign targets and this is how they get access to the data of millions of Americans for surveillance purposes without needing a court order.
The NSA conducted and estimated* 164,770 targeted searches of foreigner’s data in 2018. This number is not the total number of searches or the total number of people whose communication was gathered, the figure only represents the number of targets. So, for example, if the agency searches one targeted individual and they search their data (emails, phone records, etc.) and the agency gathered data on hundreds of people they communicate with, the NSA would only count that as one targeted search. The total number foreigners searched is much higher than 164,770 and unknown since the agency is not required to give that information. The same method of accounting search targets applies to the number of Americans affected by warrantless searches.
Using Section 702, the NSA conducted an estimated* 9,637 warrantless search queries of the contents of Americans’ calls, text messages and emails in 2018, up from 7,512 searches in 2017. The real number of Americans affected by warrantless searches is again unknown, due to the way the agency accounts for targets. The actual number of Americans whose data is exposed to the NSA is vastly higher, likely in the millions.
Using Section 702, the NSA “unmasked” or revealed the names or identities of 16,721 Americans in intelligence reports given to other agencies. This figure is not the total number of US identities named in reports they shared with other agencies, just the 16,721 times that an individual’s identity was initially concealed and then the NSA revealed the identity or “unmasked” it to another agency upon request. It is in the NSA’s powers to openly share any American individual’s identity in any classified report shared with other agencies.
Under Title IV of FISA, the NSA estimates* that they collected email and phone data from 132,690 “unique identifiers” (targeted and non-targeted identifiers). Of this total, 48.3% were US persons. The FISA law was intended for foreign intelligence, but it included loopholes, in this case, the law is used to spy on American targets nearly half of the time.
In 2018, the NSA reported collecting the data of an estimated* over 434 million call detail records (CDRs) of foreign and domestic individuals. According to the NSA’s report, “On May 23, 2018, NSA began deleting all CDRs acquired since 2015 under Section 501(b)(2)(C) of FISA. NSA deleted the CDRs because earlier in 2018 NSA analysts noted technical irregularities in some data received from telecommunications service providers. These irregularities also resulted in the production to NSA of some CDRs that NSA was not authorized to receive.” According to the NSA’s report, they could not distinguish what was “properly produced data” so they say they deleted everything and began again with a new accounting system using “unique identifiers” beginning on May 23rd of 2018 until the end of the calendar year.
The 2018 “transparency report” by the NSA reveals a 28% increase in warrantless searches of Americans’ communications since the year before. The figures in the report do not take into account searches made by the FBI or the DEA, agencies that also have access to the massive database used for queries.
*Disclaimer: the numbers self-reported by the NSA are estimates and dubious at best because they are a bunch of lying spying liars.