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Hundreds of the US surveillance law violations impact Americans’ privacy

The US federal surveillance laws were violated hundreds of times by the intelligence agencies – the FBI and the NSA – during the past decade, new research carried out by the Open Tech Institute reveals.

The comprehensive analysis of publicly available records sheds light on compliance violations that have occurred since the introduction of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2008. It appears that the provision set to determine intelligence collection on foreign accounts and individuals has also covered unintentional gathering of a vast amount of data about US citizens.

Types of violations

According to the interactive charts provided by the Open Tech Institute, most of the infractions were related to query handling. That means the scope of conducted searches too broad, even though minimization procedures limiting the collection of excessive data exist.

Also, there were many tasking violations discovered, which marked cases when the target – an individual or an account – for spying was determined improperly.

Other violations include overcollection of data, attorney-client privilege violation, failure to terminate surveillance when it was no longer needed and reverse targeting, when a non-US citizen in a foreign country was spied on in order to get communications data of a US individual.

Looking at how these violations dispersed over time, it is noticeable that most of them occurred in 2014-2015.

The full list of the compliance violations can be found here.

Illegal surveillance of Americans

As Robyn Greene, policy counsel and government affairs lead at the Open Technology Institute, noted to ZDNet, the compliance violations weren’t deliberate: “They are inadvertent or unintentional.”

However, it doesn’t change the fact of illegal spying on Americans. According to the project lead, privacy of “countless” Americans was affected by the constitutional infringements.

What is more, the number of acknowledged records signals about the issues surrounding the surveillance law. According to Greene, “they [violations] are of the most concern because they represent systemic problems that result from the scope and complexity of the Section 702 surveillance program.”

The time needed for the government to report violations to the FISA court is named as “the most striking point of the research.” An example given by Greene for illustration is an exceptional case: it took 5 years for the NSA to realize that they were unlawfully collecting Americans’ communications data and for the government to end the unauthorized covert wiretapping afterwards.

Will Section 702 be reauthorized?

Since Section 702 is set to expire on December 31, it is unclear if it remains and continues to determine the foreign surveillance powers of the US intelligence agencies. It’s no surprise that the intelligence chiefs are seeking for the statute to be signed into a permanent law, whilst privacy advocates demand greater transparency.

Will the foreign surveillance statute be reauthorized or will the NSA will lose some of its powers? It is a question to be answered by the Congress before the end of this year.



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