The number of warrantless FBI searches of Americans’ electronic data under a controversial intelligence program that aims to identify foreign threats dropped sharply from millions of searches in 2021 to over 100,000 last year, US intelligence agencies said in a report Friday.
It is welcome news for US intelligence and security agencies that are lobbying Congress to renew the program, known as Section 702, which is set to expire later this year. Some Republicans in Congress, including allies of former President Donald Trump, have balked at renewing the program while using their criticism of it in broader political attacks on the FBI.
The drop in FBI searches last year was due in part to stronger safeguards that the agency has put on analysts’ ability to search a database of foreign intelligence collected by US spy agencies, according to the report released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
The FBI conducted about 3 million warrantless searches of Americans’ data in 2021, more than half of which related to a Russian hacking campaign against critical US infrastructure, according to ODNI. (The tallies in the ODNI report are the number of times FBI personnel searched for certain data, not the number of Americans who had their data searched.)
The program is a 2008 revision to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows US spy agencies to collect the phone calls, emails and text messages of foreign targets overseas from US telecommunications providers without a warrant – even if it means sweeping up the communications of Americans in touch with those foreign targets. Analysts at multiple intelligence agencies can then search databases for leads related to foreign intelligence missions.
US national security officials say the program is essential for thwarting terror plots and investigating malicious cyber activity. A significant portion of the intelligence that ends up in President Joe Biden’s daily intelligence brief comes from Section 702 authorities, according to US officials.
But civil liberties groups have complained that the program infringes on Americans’ privacy. And even advocates of Section 702 in Congress have expressed concern at how it’s been implemented.
In March, Republican Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois accused the FBI of searching Section 702 data for his name multiple times in what he called an “egregious” violation of his privacy. Still, LaHood has said he wants Section 702 to be reauthorized with “reforms and safeguards.”
Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Friday that the new ODNI report “provides strong evidence that the reforms already put in place, particularly at FBI, are having the intended effects.”