FBI Ran Over 3 Million Searches on Americans' Electronic Data

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Using data harvested by Section 702, the FBI published an approximation of how many searches it ran on Americans’ data for the first time.

For the first time, the approximate number of searches run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation against U.S. citizens using data collected from Section 702 inquiries is available within the Annual Statistical Transparency Report, revealing that the approximate number of searches on U.S. citizen’s electronic data by the FBI was just under 3,394,053, or about 3.4 million––all without a warrant. 

The 2021 year report, a document issued annually that outlines U.S. intelligence agencies’ surveillance practices, was released in late April by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It offers a snapshot of the data queries agencies run against non-U.S. persons under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendment’s Section 702. 

Critically, searches using provisions outlined in Section 702 cannot be levied against U.S. citizens and do not require warrants. What the most recent report reveals, however, was the number of queries the FBI conducted on U.S. citizens using information gathered from Section 702-acquired information obtained by the National Security Agency. 

Unlike other intelligence agencies, including the NSA, CIA, and National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI is the only entity authorized to conduct searches on U.S. persons “that are both reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information and…queries that are reasonably likely to return evidence of a crime,” according to the report. 

Other agencies with Section 702 authorization conducted far fewer searches over the same timespan, with the CIA and NSA cumulatively conducting under 4,000 searches on U.S. citizens. 

Both the CIA and NSA have restrictions on their ability to collect data domestically, particularly when U.S. persons—which include citizens, permanent residents and domestic corporations—are involved.

Despite the large volume of searches the FBI conducted, the agency did not open an investigation related to a Section 702 query on a U.S. person.

This figure comes as Congress sees a slew of legislation aimed at protecting Americans’ data and privacy across several frontiers. Some lawmakers have spoken out against the FBI’s query practices, namely Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who demanded more context for the data on searches. 

“For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans’ communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless,” Wyden said. “The public deserves to know whether the FBI has fully addressed the extensive abuses of its 702 search authorities that have been documented for years. Baseline transparency is essential if the federal government wants to hold such sweeping surveillance powers.”

Section 702 is up for renewal this year.